By Ben Blackwell
The fact that the word “penultimate” exists exclusively as an adjective for next-to-last situations feels almost egregious. I mean, did we really need an eleven letter word to describe this scenario when a three-word combination totaling ten letters does the job just perfectly?
Because let’s face it…second-to-last things are kinda just whatever. All the penumbra and history and tall tales sprout effortlessly from every last whisper about the LAST of something, the finality, the never-again crushing darkness of an abyss of nothingness for the rest of eternity.
So for me to roll in and tell you just how good the White Stripes were in their penultimate live show…I understand the urge to call bullshit. But honestly, truthfully, with all personal bias removed from shading of opinion here…this show is phenomenal.
Visits to an Original House of Pancakes, a record store and some antique shops all replay as relatively ordinary for daytime activities. If anything, my memory of the day sticks out as being oppressively hot. With afternoon highs in the 90s, temps at Sloss Furnaces – the supposedly haunted turn-of-the-century pig iron producing blast furnace turned concert venue – would hover into the 80s well into the Stripes performance that night. Factor in the crush of 2400 bodies crammed into the rudimentary shed-like structure with unforgiving open air walls and my recall of the event is overwhelmingly punctuated by the feel, smell and general annoyance of sweat.
Add in the decrepit, rusted, tetanus-y surroundings of the rest of the campus and the knowledge that the number of workers who died there was rumored to be in the hundreds, their falling or being pushed into the red hot fires of the furnaces only to be instantly incinerated and the unshakable pall that casts on a spot even some five decades after the last flames there were extinguished…needless to say it didn’t feel like an ordinary show by any means.
Opener Dan Sartain would play in front of the biggest hometown crowd of his career and the highlight for me (playing drums for him on this leg) was his inquiry to the crowd “So…how many genuine Alabama rednecks we got here tonight?” After a strong response from the crowd, Dan replied “Well, you made my life a living hell for 26 years. Thank you.”
Just…perfect in every way.
The show kicks off with “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” and finds Jack taking liberties (for the better) in a song where he usually did not. The particularly gnarly first note of feedback curves into some choice guitar syncopations. As the most-frequent set opener across the band’s career, it feels odd that this would be the last time the Stripes ever started a show with “Dead Leaves” as their final gig would begin with a cover “Stop Breaking Down.”
“Icky Thump” rolls into the fray wildly. To hear the assembled crowd, without prompting, perfectly nail the patter of twelve “la’s” sung in rapid succession at the end of the second verse, all mere weeks after the song’s release…it is a great reminder as to how WIDE this record reached so quickly upon deployment.
Leading into “When I Hear My Name” Jack, particularly chatty this evening, says “Meg and I knew we was Alabama bound!” and despite any hammy undertones, it ultimately comes off as sincere and heartfelt. Leading out from there, “Hotel Yorba” hits as particularly vivacious, Meg’s accompanying vocals both vivid and spot-on.
Jack’s unusual beginning to “The Denial Twist” and the improvised divergent lyrics in the second verse, which seem to say “It’s the way you rock and roll!” leave the Stripes’ final performance of this song as striking.
While the extended, elegiac intro to “Death Letter” stands strongly as a haunting slice of slide guitar, Jack’s improvised lyrics on the third verse delight. Similar to his moves earlier in “Dead Leaves”, taking a specific part of a song that, to my memory, was seldom if ever switched up, and reworking it on the spot, it all feels significant. Especially in light of the fact that the song would essentially run out of its evolutionary runway in another 24 hours. So for him to sing…
It looked like ten thousand
Women around my front porch
Didn’t know if I’d listen to ‘em
Or keep on lookin’ north
I’m just reminded of the fact that no song should ever be considered complete or finished or beyond reinterpretation.
Acolytes of St. Francis of Assisi may be surprised to catch Jack’s in-the-moment name drop of Brother Sun, Sister Moon in the midst of an extended rant toward the end of “Do.” Though it may bear repeating that “Little Bird” and its “I wanna preach to birds” lyric is explicitly inspired by the 13th century saint, it should require no leap of faith to imagine the 1972 Franco Zeffirreli film depicting the life and times of Francis being viewed by Jack as a prepubescent altar boy. Eschewing his wealthy upbringing for a life of piety and monasticism, Francis would become patron saint of Italy, the first documented stigmatic and the creator of the first live nativity scene. If there’s a Catholic Hall of Fame, St. Francis of Assisi is definitely a first-ballot shoe-in.
Nuggets like Jack’s borderline goofy drunk introduction of Meg for “In The Cold, Cold Night” with “Miss Meg White takes center stage!” belies a truly stellar performance while brief, blink-and-you-missed-it riff inversions on both “Astro” and “Little Cream Soda” are delicious little surprises to revel in. And I’ll be damned if the organ-driven take on “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart” is a welcome reminder that every last live version of this song is worth listening to. It never fails disappoints, it always satisfies.
But the juiciest plum in this set is the unexpected, abrupt abandonment of “Seven Nation Army” a mere ninety seconds into the song. When Jack says “I don’t know if we should play this song in America anymore…I guess it doesn’t translate well…lost something in the translation” he says so without knowing it’d be the last time that he and Meg ever played the song together.
I remember this happening that night, but at the time I never mentioned it or thought to bring it up.
But 15 years later I had to.
So in an email with the subject line “dumb white stripes question” I reached out to Jack for clarity on the situation. His response…
oh i think i was just joking because it had become such a soccer chant at the time and that europeans loved it “more” than americans for a minute there
and they weren’t singing any english lyrics just saying “po po po po” in Italy, so i was joking that americans didn’t understand the “foreign language” of “po po po po po po po”
That reads nicely.
But I cannot help being reminded that in 2007 George W. Bush was still in office and folks were still wildly pissed about his mere existence AND the ongoing overseas US military boondoggles. That year would see a total of 904 American armed forces casualties in Iraq alone, the single highest yearly total in the entirety of said occupation.
So in Alabama, I dunno…a bunch of self-identifying, sweat-soaked rednecks chanting along…it had just the faintest twinge of jingoistic misappropriation originating from the crowd…that basso ostinato chopping along with the sinister Dorian mode overtone. It sounds ominous. “Army” is in the title. I mean, it’s not a stretch.
At the time I remember just having half the half-second thought along these confused political lines and then literally have not thought about it since. The only contemporaneous review I can find of the show, written by Andy Smith, attributes the scuttled “Seven Nation Army” as an effort to prevent “the righteous and violent rigor of the lyrics (to) be misinterpreted as condoning an unrighteous war.”
So even if we do take Jack at his word here (which I think we should), what he says his intention was, it’s worth noting that the perceived notion in the air that night, at least to some, was of an entirely different tone. These are the shortcomings of interpretation. They will never rectify themselves.
So for Jack to switch the opening “Ball and Biscuit” lyrics to be…
Yes I am the Third Man, woman
But I am also the seventh son
…to me it reads as almost stentorian “LET ME SPELL IT OUT FOR YOU”-level of painting a picture just perfectly clear in light of the supposed confusion or misinterpretation of anything earlier in the set. With gusto.
Yet the impromptu lyrics on “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues” are deadly…
There’s all kinds of emotions that a phone call ain’t gonna fix
You took me to the brink woman, took me everywhere I didn’t want to go but I went anyway I never want you to question where I was headed, yes that’s where my head is nowadays
The complexity and grasp of human condition displayed in an off-the-top-of-the-head exclamation, deftly cramming all those syllables into precise meter and landing on the rhyming couplet, all while giving off the impression that the severity and pathos contained therein surely must’ve been labored over intensely for hours, days, weeks even…well, isn’t that just the way to knock us all over?
Ending with “Boll Weevil” just a short trip up I-65 from the actual boll weevil monument in Enterprise, Alabama, and some on-mic praise of Sartain is a perfect way to put that specific, local, “we know exactly where we are” stamp on the entire evening. When Jack implores the crowd to not go looking for any ghosts on the property after the show, you have half a mind to respect those wishes.
We in the touring party would not respect those wishes. After the show, a bunch of us (including Meg, but not Jack) climbed the stairs, single-file, to a precarious perch overlooking the vast, murky stretches of the complex. From above the entirely insufficient artificial light dappled the tiniest spots and failed to make a dent in the existentially overpowering void.
Even more dread-inducing was the spectre of a pitch-black decommissioned railroad tunnel. From entry to exit, the path we were led to couldn’t have been more than 200 yards at most. But I do not exaggerate when I say there was a complete absence of any outside illumination in this stretch. Pure, unadulterated emptiness. Cannot see your own hand in front of your face insanity. The shit that so many horror film plots are predicated on and has kept the night light business booming since the passing of the torch from candle to light bulb.
We got our hands on a single, meager flashlight, yet between the 8 of us (or so) that were on the endeavor…it felt wildy inadequate to the point of palpable, impending fear.
But there’s a funny little thing that happened within this little group of friends upon venturing into the ghastly, haunted space. We were all still buzzy from the after effects of such a stunning live concert in such unconventional environs. Simply put…we laughed our fucking asses off. Hysterically. The entire time. What took us maybe five minutes to traverse passed in seemingly five seconds. No one seemed like they could even be bothered with being scared. In the face of the uncertain, of the overwhelming chasm…one light and each other was all we needed to lead the way. To illuminate. To get us to the desired destination.
In the end, we’re all just chasing ghosts, looking for something to get us through.
Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground
I Think I Smell a Rat
When I Hear My Name
The Denial Twist
I’m Slowly Turning Into You
In The Cold, Cold Night
I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart
Seven Nation Army
Jack the Ripper
Little Cream Soda
A Martyr For My Love For You
One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)
300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues
We’re Going To Be Friends
I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself
Ball and Biscuit / Cool Drink of Water Blues