Album Review: The White Stripes – ‘Under Great White Northern Lights’ (Third Man/XL)

The duo's new DVD and live album makes you realise how much you miss them

As (mostly) fun as [a]The Raconteurs[/a] and [a]The Dead Weather[/a] have been, boy does this little DVD/Live album package makes you miss [a]The White Stripes[/a] something rotten. The beautifully shot doc follows the band’s 2007 Canadian tour, and it’s a reminder that while Jack White may enjoy his less pressurised roles in his other bands, he’s a shadow of the rock star that’s unleashed when it’s just him and Meg. The first piece of concert footage is a thunderous version of first single ‘Let’s Shake Hands’, and as Meg plays one-handed with Jack whirling wildly in front of her, it all comes flooding back: they’re the most violent, sexiest live band of our times.

The melding of Led Zep rock glamour and the rough-and-ready spirit of the blues is, of course, at the heart of the band, and the film contrasts the full-colour theatre shows with black-and-white footage of them playing bizarre impromptu free gigs. All the best moments come from this stuff, as Jack and Meg play to passengers on a bus in Winnipeg, rock out on the back of a fishing boat on a river and do a gig in a bowling alley during which Jack pauses in the middle of one song to bowl a ball (he scores eight).

However, the real draw for fans will be the intimate glimpses of Jack and Meg’s relationship. There’s a minor tiff about one show (Jack: “We were changing tempo three times a song.” Meg, ever stoic: “It felt about right to me.”) and much to be read into their body language and teasing little ways. Despite the fact they once shared a marital bed, that whole sibling shtick actually seems emotionally truthful. Jack really is a playful younger brother with her, forever mocking her silent reserve. Meg is very much the amused, bemused, older sister – “I’m quiet, what can I say?” – and the film plays around with her Sphinx-like image by subtitling her few words. Jack’s incredibly protective of her, but also obviously reliant upon her elusiveness, not just as an onstage anchor for him, but also as a stimulus for his creative spirit. There’s one moment backstage when Jack’s bashing away at a piano while Meg smokes contentedly on a couch nearby; a perfect snapshot of artist and muse.

Of course, knowing that the band ceased all activity shortly after this due to Meg’s “acute anxiety” gives the whole thing a compelling subtext. Her genial silences seem suddenly sad, Jack’s fevered performances desperate, their arm-in-arm walks together poignant. The film closes with the image of Meg sobbing in Jack’s arms after he’s played her ‘White Moon’ on the piano.

The live album is built from tracks taken from different shows so doesn’t show off the improvisatory nature of their setlist-free shows, but again, it’s a reminder that their three-year absence is a bit of a tragedy. Let’s have that comeback this year please, ol’ Meg.

Martin Robinson

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Click here to get your copy of The White Stripes’ ‘Under Great White Northern Lights’ from the Rough Trade shop