The White Stripes, “Under Great White Northern Lights”

I like to collect live records. There was a time when I used to loathe live records because it never brought the full concert experience home. I’m also talking about back in the 90s. Yes, I know I’m likely dating myself and at 23 I’m probably too young to say this, but the quality of music and recording it has come a long way from those first live records I used to buy and listen to in the 90s. It seems that in the past 5 years quality for live recordings has gone up and for the better. Bands are picking good filmmakers or learning how to do it themselves, and fans couldn’t be happier. They get to see their favorite bands on a more personal level, and it becomes a memento of a time the fan and the band shared together, especially for those fans who went to the show that was recorded. It captures a moment in time that will last forever for certain people, like me who love this kind of thing. But back to my review.

The reason I like to collect live records is because when I’m not entirely familiar with the artist (as I was before I saw and heard Under Great White Northern Lights by the White Stripes), it’s good to hear their hits, favorite songs, and some rare tunes they play live. Some of the recent albums I’ve picked up include Jack Johnson, Ben Harper and the Relentless7, and this week, The White Stripes. That’s what this review is about.

Last night I saw what I consider to be one of the greatest achievements in musical documentation. Being a slight fan of The White Stripes, I went into the premiere of the film Under Great White Northern Lights skeptical. I’d heard plenty about Jack White’s accomplishments as a musician and as a guitarist, but I wasn’t sure what to expect of the live DVD. I also expected it to be a straight live concert. Rather, the film is a documentary on The White Stripes’ tour of Canada three years ago. Through the tour, they met small town folk, government officials, tribal leaders, and performed some amazing music over the 10 or so dates they scheduled. It was done not long after the release of their sixth album, Icky Thump. Jack and Meg give quite the candid interview throughout the entire documentary, and it is littered with performances from the entire tour. They shared music with a group of the elders from one of the towns they visited, and Jack divulged that every show they do is not scripted. Rather than have set lists and the same thing every time, which he claims makes a show stale, they purposely go out without a clue as to what songs they’re going to do. Of course, you’re going to do hits and songs people know. But to just go out and play. Let whatever will happen, happen. It’s a beautiful thing, and it makes for some amazing music in the process.

At a point in one of the live performances, Jack broke a string mid song, and kept playing. Most bands and musicians would keep playing the song of course, but immediately after, they’d switch out guitars. As far as Jack White is concerned, he didn’t care. Improv seems to be his and Meg’s foray, after all. I assume he played the rest of the show with the same guitar and other footage from the documentary seems to support my theory. Another thing that is as impressive as that is that many times, when you listen to The White Stripes, you need to remember there’s only two people doing everything you’re hearing. This is especially true when it comes to the live CD portion of the package. It is probably one of the best produced live CDs I’ve ever had the privilege of listening to. It captures everything that you know is going on on stage: Jack switching between guitar riffs and a keyboard, running all over the stage like a mad man, and Meg keeping time with her red and white colored drum set. Jack even said at one point in the interview that he purposely moves things around on stage before each show so that he has more work to do, making it even more spontaneous, as far as his locations on stage and the places he needs to run to, to get the sound he wants. All their hits and some of the less known tracks are here on the 16-track live masterpiece.

For most bands, there is a set way to do things. A set way to make the best show they possibly can. But not for The White Stripes. One reviewer mentioned in the film said of Icky Thump, “It’s a great record, but how long can they possibly keep this up?”, to which Jack simply replied “It’s great to keep defying that.” The White Stripes will continue to defy all possibilities and negativities as long as they respect the music they play. So far, they’re doing a good job of it.

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