The White Stripes frontman was hard to read last Wednesday night at the State Theatre. He hid beneath the brim of his black bolero hat, dropping the blinds over his pale features as if his emotions were rare jewels that the audience was out to steal.
Much was left to the imagination as the Stripes romped through a sweaty, stone-faced set. Jack said little to the packed house, save for a quick "How ya doin'?" midway through the band's 90-minute performance. Drummer Meg White played with her kit turned sideways, her gaze averted from the audience. Throughout the show, the two mostly played to each other, Jack leaning into the mic at the foot of Meg's drumkit, Meg focusing on Jack as if he were the only other person in the room. They seemed strangely insulated from all the hooting and hand-clapping and the drunk blonde headbanging in the balcony.
Yet none of it felt like chilly rock-star posturing. Instead, the band seemed to trust the audience to figure things out on its own. During the rare moments when Jack did get more explicit -- as when he briefly railed against Burger King and Wal-Mart during the anti-corporate screed "The Big Three Killed My Baby" -- it only disrupted the mood.
"The whole point of the White Stripes is the liberation of limiting yourself," Jack told Rolling Stone recently, and this show was all about demonstrating that less really is more.
Besides, if Jack is tight-lipped, his guitar is a blabbermouth. It sucks up all the oxygen in the room before exhaling loud bursts of bluesy hellfire. Jack frequently extended martial stompers like "Ball and Biscuit" and "Fell in Love With a Girl" with the kind of slobbering guitar gymnastics normally reserved for '80s hair-metal bands. But where those groups felt as overwrought as their foot-long bangs, Jack played with a casual looseness -- marked by missed notes and peals of feedback -- that deflated any guitar-hero pomposity.
With Jack's fingers doing most of the talking, Meg kept time with a simple backbeat that changed little from song to song. She played with her elbows locked stiff, a somewhat awkward-looking swing that wastes no motion. It's all about economy, tethering Jack's flights of fancy to an unadorned thump.
Together, Meg and Jack turned even homespun tunes like "Hotel Yorba" into hot-blooded rockers. On their records, many of the White Stripes' songs are willfully precocious -- tales of friendship and puppy love that sound as if they were penned by schoolchildren. Their sound is pointedly primitive and reductionist, boiling rock and roll down to its essence -- gritty blues combined with a country-western swing -- and underscoring it with the bluster of '70s arena rock.
Live, the Stripes' songs harden. The band seems to play everything faster, with Jack's upper-register histrionics making him sound as if he were aping Dio at a cocktail party. The duo paused only long enough for Jack to position himself behind the black grand piano or the red-and-white xylophone that he used to flesh out songs like "Doorbell" and "The Nurse."
Despite the mostly business-minded approach, the set did benefit from some spontaneity. The Stripes occasionally detoured into left-field covers -- Mazzy Star's "Five String Serenade," the Yeah Yeah Yeah's "Man" -- and they always perform without a set list, playing whatever strikes their fancy.
The concert was defined by the split between impulsiveness and dogged professionalism. On one hand, the show felt very formal, with Jack and Meg distancing themselves from the crowd and dressing up their roadies in black suits with red ties and matching fedoras. Yet the show was also loud and exultant, with girls shaking their hips and Jack enjoining the crowd to sing along with him at show's end.
As the show closed, Jack clasped Meg's hand and the two took a quick bow. Jack briefly smiled at the crowd, the first time he'd done so all night. It was a minor gesture, but as with their minimalist rock and roll, the Stripes' secret is making small things feel big.