May’s Third Man Thursday is here just in time for the holiday weekend with a very special release. Oberlin 2000 was a cornerstone moment for The White Stripes and now the transformative show is available to stream in the nugs.net app. Ben Blackwell, The White Stripes’ official archivist returns this month with a recap of the show below.
We left Cincinnati later than we should have. A visit to Shake-It Records looms large in my memory and we definitely rolled straight to the club, Dionysus. On the campus of Oberlin College and apparently run by the students there, what could be an easy target to shit on is actually pretty damn cool. I mean, hell, the college I was enrolled in that semester wasn’t booking Sleater-Kinney.
The show itself still sticks out as one of the most transformative the White Stripes EVER played. Like if there was ever so clearly a “before” and “after” moment in the history of the White Stripes live shows, I’d push the pin firmly into the date September 16th, 2000.
I don’t recall the crowds the previous two nights (Chicago and Newport, KY) necessarily “getting” the Stripes. Sure, the performances were solid, folks may have even picked up on it a little, but they were big rooms, law of averages probably explains it. But at Dionysus, man, it’s a small room, maybe 400 capacity, and with a low stage, the space felt like a basement…hot and sweaty, probably not being utilized for its intended use and primarily populated with kids who’ve got NOTHING better to do. Receptors open, transmissions receiving…just give ’em something worthwhile and the response will be wild.
Watching from the merch table at the back of the room, you could feel the band take off. The show starts off interestingly enough (can’t ever recall “Your Southern Can Is Mine” appearing so early in a set) and from around “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” onward, its as if afterburners are on full throttle, every move just of-the-moment and powerful and important and happening right in front of your face.
After futzing around for months, the fuzz feedback mainline of “Dead Leaves” is finally firmly established in the way all would come to know and love it. “Death Letter” is the raucous rail-splitter while the placid verses of “Stop Breaking Down” achieve the song a tempered duality as leveraged by the absolute savage slide of the choruses, while the uncharacteristic off mic screaming in “One More Cup of Coffee” has you realize that mind-bending covers of Son House, Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan poured out one after the other in rapid succession, a most holy trinity of White Stripes heroes if there ever was one.
From “Astro” forward…there’s so evidently a transcendent musical connection between the two entities on stage, of the same brain, taking action without thought, a Darwinian evolution that should crawl across millennia transpiring in matter of mere minutes. On a Saturday night. In Ohio.
Listening back now, nearly 20 years later, it STILL gives me goosebumps. The way “Jack the Ripper” (a song they’d goofed on a handful of times previously) melts into “Farmer John” (a song they’d NEVER previously goofed on) and straight into, hands-down, the best version of “St. James Infirmary” the band would ever perform and arguably epicenter of the aforementioned “before” and “after” designations.
To lay ears to the recording now is to hear “St. James” evolving in real time as an arrangement heretofore unknown, just exploratory explosive accents primally bashing away as entree to the song, unrecognizable from its released version, pummeling inauspiciously into the first verse, Jack’s voice rich, full, expressive, like a vase holding ten thousand orchids hand-painted by O’Keeffe. Then completely out of left-field, Jack offers the second verse double time, damn near jazzy or show tune(ful), humbly paying respect to the roots of this Cab Calloway composition. In my recollection of the evening, I feel like I was holding my breath at this moment. As if to ask, timidly, scared, fearful of failure or catastrophic collapse “can they do it?” And wildly, with abandon, Meg is RIGHT there with him, never missing a beat for the next TWO verses. Weeks, days, shit a half HOUR early this would have been impossible. The chops were not there, the telekinetic o-mind wavelength was, previously, nonexistent. And without ever telegraphing the move, out of nowhere, Jack calls verse four back to the explosive accents, half-time, reigning it in with a delightful smirk, at this point completely showing off how shit hot he and Meg are. Just making it up as they go at this point, verse five crosses back to double time, the intensity somehow amplified, improbably kicked up a few notches and culminating into one solitary, strong expositional statement, like a goddamned full-body statue of Teddy Roosevelt, arm outstretched, pointing, confidently, ready to decimate whatever gets in the way. And that, you little maniacs, is when the White Stripes first hit that apex, as if levitating, where they could do no wrong. Exquisite beauty. The reason we are all here today.
A few songs later and unexpectedly, Jack just starts making shit up off the top of his head. We’ve labeled it “Keep On Walking (improv)” here and that, again, you lucky freaks, is the first time the White Stripes ever just made something up in front of a crowd. Said approach would be responsible for some of my personal favorite moments from the band (including “Little Cream Soda” even though I wasn’t even there to witness it in person) and straight into “Screwdriver.” Jack teases, if only for a moment, the drawn out and confrontational manner of both the MC5’s “I Just Don’t Know” and the Gories “48 Hours” and yet somehow builds upon it. Goes further. Creates distance. Catches nirvana.
Leaving the stage after said culmination, you can hear the crowd just losing it. Apeshit. The opening act, who almost certainly no one there even knew of prior to this evening. EVERYONE was urging them to return for an encore, including the members of Sleater-Kinney, who were all but pushing Jack and Meg back onstage. Really, truly, this never happens, it should never happen, yet witnesses to history and this tape prove, “Let’s Build a Home” just smokes before the tape runs out in a brief moment of Basinski-esque disintegration.
I’m a bastard when it comes to hyperbole…I HATE when people blow shit out of proportion. I don’t have time for it. But I honestly do not think the White Stripes ever played a more perfect show. Yeah Manaus ’05 was bonkers, Tasmania ’06 is electrifying, Mississippi ’07 brings tears, Detroit Institute of Arts, Peel sessions…there’s no shortage of GREAT shows with this band. But ones where everything clicks. Where the band is almost a visage in hyper-speed while their surroundings are but props calcified in amber, where it feels like the incalculable number of nerve endings of every last synapse of every living being in the world were all connected onstage that night…well, damn, Oberlin it is. Because while those other shows may carry more emotion, may explore further depths of the catalog, or engaged multiples of more fans…September 16th, 2000 was the catalyst that enabled all of them to ever happen.
So for that, I’m grateful.