By Mark Guarino
Two is a crucial number for the White Stripes. If bands are not packing their roster with multiple players, these days the routine is to fill the stage with an excess of dancers, back-up singers, production techs and videos.
Yet the White Stripes continue to prove that more creative possibilities arrive when the math is reduced to two. Meg and Jack White consist of one of the most compelling rock bands today, not just because their less-is-more formula works in delivering volume, but also because the minimalism of their music allows peculiarities to filter in, enough to give their music a character that’s entirely unique.
At the Auditorium Theatre Wednesday, the second of three sold-out nights, the Detroit duo played a 30-song set that over 100 minutes fanned across blues, folk, bluegrass and guttural rock. Yet all barriers were extinguished due to the duo’s continual surge forward from song to song. Jack White, who played guitar, piano, xylophone — sometimes a combination of two at once — chased after the songs, at times getting ahead of them entirely. Live, the songs trounced their recorded counterparts, becoming louder, messier and dangerously close to becoming indistinguishable entirely.
But as much as their playing was meant to leave many raw nerves exposed, their interplay became about the extreme dynamics. During the song “The Nurse,” Jack delicately moved his mallets over a xylophone while Meg interrupted with cymbal crashes that made the notes he played sound like they were being struck with lightning. On “The Hardest Button to Button” — a song that is best described as violent — Jack played a slinky guitar line that followed Meg’s menacing bass drum stomp until both kicked into high gear together.
Most bands can create tension through specific moments in songs, however the White Stripes pull the knot tight even when taking a quick break to tune a guitar. Although their combined color scheme and the speculation about their relationship both helped distinguish them from the pack early in their career, the band has managed to use that ambiguity make music steeped in the myth and folklore of early American music — a feat considering the times we live in where no detail is spared in public life.
Part Harpo Marx, part Nico, Meg White sang twice, but barely. Her feeble vocals had a charming school play quality that was coached by Jack who strolled behind her. On drums, she proved to be the pair’s underrated half, her booming kick drum driving each song.
Jack White’s vocals had the bloodied passion of Robert Plant, but it was on the more folk material where the true dynamics of his voice came through. Playing an acoustic guitar, he sang the ancient folk ballad “Black Jack Davey” with a voice that ranged from confidence to anguish. He told a story through all 13 verses, one after another, that when it was finished, it was a performance that was powerful down to the thinnest thread.