I’d put money down that when Jack and Meg became the White Stripes on Bastille Day 1997, Jack never imagined fans would be tailgating in a stadium parking lot before one of their shows. Both Saturday and Sunday night at Keyspan Park in Coney Island I had to make my way through drunk people in Jets sweatshirts and Yankees baseball hats. Even on the tour for Elephant, playing to huge crowds at Hammerstein Ballroom, it still seemed the number of kids in black, red and white outnumbered the kids that had wandered over from A&F. Complete and total music snobbery, I know, but when did this happen? As much as I have a difficult time adjusting to this unexpected level the White Stripes have reached, they seem to fit the roles of stadium stars surprisingly well.
Perhaps it’s a mis-memory, but I seem to recall after White Blood Cells Jack told a reporter that the band would never reach the stadium level, that their set-up and the spirit behind the music wasn’t suited for such un-intimate venues. However, on this tour, Jack and Meg bring the noise with a stage set-up that looks like an arctic vaudevillian tundra littered with instruments. The stage is covered in white palm trees, with white shell lights at the foot of the stage, Meg’s drum kit with additional timpanis, Jack’s 3 keyboard set up, line of guitars and mandolin with the glockenspiel for “The Nurse” at the back of the stage.
On Saturday night, about eight songs into the set, some girl behind me declared to her group of immobile friends, ‘I don’t know any of the songs they’ve played. When’s he going to play “7 Nation Army?” Uninitiated fans seemed a bit perplexed by Jack’s performance – the lack of set list, the old blues covers, the Tegan and Sara “Walking with a Ghost” cover, the beginning riff to “The Rat” turning into “Girl You Have No Faith in Medicine,” leading without stop into “Death Letter.” Even though the show has moved into a baseball diamond, the spirit behind the performance remains. Jack becomes possessed during the set, traveling from instrument to instrument, singing to the crowd with the front microphone to singing directly to Meg behind her kit. When he hunches over during a trademarked high-pitched slide guitar solo, you can see Jack become one of the classic bluesmen that he covers. The requisite fan pleasers are there, “7 Nation Army” does get played, as does “Hotel Yorba,” “Ball and Biscuit,” and “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” but Jack compromises none of the spontaneity of the shows of the past. Though the venue and crowd has changed, it’s still comforting for a fan of yore that Leadbelly cover “Boll Weavil” still closes out the set. It’s a testament to the power of Jack White that he manages to get a crowd of drunken frat guys and Z100 listeners to sing along to final lines “He’s lookin for a home.” If anyone can bring the blues to Coney Island’s Keyspan Park, Jackie White can.