White Stripes : Wolverhampton Civic Hall/Manchester Apollo

The tour of the year

Things we get on the first two dates of The Tour Of The Year: melted hearts, ‘Jolene’, ‘In The Cold, Cold Night’, 2003’s best single so far, a shudder up our spines, ‘Astro’ (off the first record), a little bit closer to solving the mystery of Jack and Meg’s relationship, ‘Apple Blossom’. Things we don’t get: ‘There’s No Home For You Here’. Not bad going, right?

Wolverhampton Civic is a funny place at the best of times, being among the few rock’n’roll venues in the country that could double as a line-dancing rehearsal room. Scattered around is a two-tone army of Stripettes – the Junior Jacks and mini-Megs who bound to the front as soon as The Go come on and don’t move until three hours later after they, and we, have learned many things about life. A shame then that The Go’s reprehensible Status Quo-isms are unlikely to teach anyone anything apart from impatience. Luckily Whirlwind Heat are bloody fantastic. Three young bucks dressed in regulation white, their racket’s powered simply by bontempi and sawdust, and is immense, especially as they possess a curious knack of making about half their songs sound exactly like ‘Get Ur Freak On’. Jack loves them so much that he produced their imminent ‘Do Rabbits Wonder’ album on his Third Man label – it says a lot for a band this futurist to be championed by a man who refuses to use a telephone unless it’s wind-powered, or something.

Anyway. A lot’s happened since the last time the Stripes played the UK, not least the chart-shattering success of ‘Elephant’. The good news is that, when they do arrive with a scorching ‘Black Math’, nothing has changed. There’s no bass player, even for ‘Seven Nation Army’, no choirs of backing singers or extravagant set-pieces. Just the two Whites, red-and-white ‘De Stijl’ artwork flashing behind them, and – being the first date of the ‘Elephant’ tour anywhere in the world – a fire inside that’s bright even for them. The set, like the band, is classic-modern. The pick of ‘Elephant’ (‘Ball and Biscuit’ is mouth-wateringly low-slung’, ‘I Wanna Be The Boy’ jerks genuine tears) and the nearest they’ll ever get to the Greatest Hits thing (‘You’re Pretty Good Looking’, ‘Dead Leaves’, but no ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’) alongside the now-standard clutch of covers. Yet even the most familiar bits are riddled with surprise. “My sister Meg’s gonna sing you a song,” says Jack. Now, nobody’s pretending this woman can sing; but when she veers off-key and her voice cracks, rivers of soul ooze out of ‘In The Cold, Cold Night’. Stood daintily, hands behind back, she’s taken the right lessons from Peggy Lee. It ends with regular cover ‘Oh Evil’, magnificently. Stripe one: knockout.

The last time Manchester Apollo had its dressing rooms refurbished was when Miss Shirley Bassey personally requested they be painted pink. That was nearly 30 years ago. It suits Jack and Meg’s ‘dying sweetheart’ thing perfectly and the spirit of the place sees Jack and Meg hit their stride. ‘Black Math’ opens again, but soon morphs into Jack’s ‘your mother is dead’ power rant. This is after the first song, remember. Jack’s either pissed or he’s still not come down from last night’s manic final strains. “Where’s Jack White tonight?” he screeches, like Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz. “Could this be… Maaaaaanchester? Far from home!”

Example: They power into ‘Hotel Yorba’ as normal, but stop mid-verse. “Let’s do this right!” Instinctively, Meg gets out from behind the kit and sits down, next to Jack, and without any instruments at all they sing it – flat as you like – to each other. It is possibly the most beautiful moment in the history of the world. But there’s snarl as well as subtlety. ‘I Wanna Be The Boy’, tender last night, is reborn as a creeping lurgy, coming out in hives as Jack creaks his guitar in and bludgeons the tender into the mad. Jack’s in a different place, for sure, but because the White Stripes never run to a set list – they don’t even have one – when he mis-times things, and has to end before the encore, it doesn’t matter. This isn’t a show but an open flow of blood; there’s nothing so simple as beginnings and endings.

“We don’t wanna go but we have to go. I lose track of time,” he shrugs, and he and Meg hold hands, wave, and vanish as mysteriously as they arrived.

Oh, that mystery. It’s obvious really: two kids grow up together in downtown part of Detroit, friends since nursery, marry as teenagers, get on fine, but like most sweethearts, realise after a few years that the sex has lost its spark and they’re more like brother and sister than husband and wife. What’s to fall out about? Why not travel the world in each other’s company? The point is, we’ve lived with Jack and Meg for a little while now as well, in our hearts if not in our pockets. And when they’re around, playing their odd, affecting little music, we feel safe. Scorched to the bone and a little dazed afterwards, but safe. Tour of the year? This is going to last a lot longer than that.

Dan Martin