It’s a funny, strangely endearing sight. Even on crutches, Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas looks cool – aided and abetted by a sharp new haircut and ironic Red Stripe T-shirt. Better still, the whole band sound great – tight, supercharged, gritty and glamorous. ‘New York City Cops’ continues to prove irresistible even after several thousand listens, ‘Barely Legal’ causes jiggling on the stool and a moshpit in the audience, and ‘Hard To Explain’ is easy-peasy pop perfection. Then there are the new songs. ‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’ and ‘Ze Newie’ pile sleazy pop hooks onto the patent Strokes sound, while ‘The Way It Is’ welds ‘Rocks’ by Primal Scream to The Smiths‘ ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’. Best of the lot is ‘You’re Talking Too Much’, which gives new depth to The Strokes‘ traditional pose of wounded insouciance. As a portrait of a failing relationship it’s moving: as a pop song it’s superb.
In normal circumstances, the pressure would be on – but The White Stripes are not a normal band. This is a small homecoming gig and they’re going to have fun. So as The Strokes watch from a balcony, The White Stripes deliver low-down dirty blues with ultra-high camp presentation. Meg preens and poses, her hair blowing in the wind (machine), while Jack sings ‘I Think I Smell A Rat’ with the boggle-eyed mania of a pantomime villain. Up close, you can see that their incredible musical togetherness is more the product of rigorous rehearsal rather than some spooky, incestuous bond. You also sense that they enjoy winding people up. But there’s nothing flippant about the music itself – its blazing intensity would put Slipknot to shame.
New song ‘Ball And Biscuit’ sounds like Led Zepplin dragged through a mangler, while ‘Death Letter’ is such a scorcher that people are crowdsurfing. This is a set for the hardened palate – only ‘Apple Blossom’ and ‘We Are Going To Be Friends’ provide soft respite from the awesome ferocity of Jack and Meg in full cry. And for the anachronistic touch which is as essential a part of The White Stripes as their red and white dress code, ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’ morphs into a twisted version of ‘Pick A Bale Of Cotton’ (namechecking Julian Casablancas). The show’s then topped off by Leadbelly’s ‘Boll Weevil’ (apparently Jack’s secret sign that a gig has gone well) in which he mentions “Jackie White” to appreciative screams as Meg looks dreamily ecstatic.
The following night’s gig is even better. First, there’s the venue – a 6,000 capacity outdoor amphitheatre in Detroit’s Chene Park. It’s sunset, the weather’s balmy and the stage is set right on the river – so near that boats can (and do) pull up behind to have a listen. Across the water, you can see Canada. In surroundings like these, you’d be hard pushed not to have a good time.
And it’s obviously had the same effect on The Strokes, who despite professing themselves “pretty hungover” admit “it’s pretty nice out here… cool band, cool crowd.” The crowd is incredibly broad, ranging from White Stripes-obsessed 15-year-old girls in full red and white regalia to grizzled old blues fans. And onstage, there’s a palpable sense of relief and release. The Strokes cruise through the same set as the night before, but with energy and enthusiasm levels turned up to eleven. Best moment: Fab punching the air and biting his bottom lip in ecstasy during ‘The Modern Age’. Funniest moment: Julian dropping his microphone and struggling off the stool to retrieve it during ‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’. Perhaps it’s the sun going down, but tonight ‘Hard To Explain’ sounds strangely and sweetly elegaic, like it’s the end of an era – or perhaps just the end of summer.
Julian finishes the show joking, “Enjoy your next fuckin’ band coming up… I’ve forgotten what they’re called” and struggles offstage with an endearingly goofy wave. It seems unlikely that The White Stripes will top what we’ve just seen, but they, too, manage to improve on the night before. The Stripes serve up an all-out, twelve-course, blow-out of a set comprising of early B-sides, obscure blues cover versions and massive crowd-pleasers. From the foppish paranoia of ‘The Big Three Killed My Baby’ to a yowling ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’ via Meg’s sinfully fine vocal on the appropriately titled ‘Rated X’, it’s all high voltage stuff. Throw in ‘You’re Pretty Good Looking’ and ‘St James’ Infirmary’ and you’ve got a recipe for audience meltdown. At the end of a feral ‘Hello Operator’, Jack gasps “we’ve gotta go… I don’t want to go”. We don’t want him to, either. Tonight, The White Stripes are genius.