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My first White Stripes gig (in Denver)

3 Feb

The news that The White Stripes have split is, like their career, entirely against the trends and flow of the music industry.

At a time when dozens of reforming indie favourites are back in the game and admit it’s just for the money, the best American rock band to come alive in the noughties have quietly called it a day and politely ended a decade of adoration from fans, critics and the Italian football team who used the tune of Seven Nation Army to accompany their 2006 World Cup chant.

When I first heard The White Stripes, I naturally wanted to see them live, if only to see how Jack White made those noises with his guitar. The bluesy punk explosion was short, addictive and full of the the shrieking air guitar moments that only ancient bands like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin could muster.

The White Stripes sounded retro but had twisted the rock band template and proved that a duo could create a sound as loud and exciting as any five-piece. Jack and Meg together always reminded me of two people playing with sound like early hip-hop amateurs, adding rap over rough ghetto blaster beats. The ad-hoc drumming and improv riffs was as roughly hewn as any Brooklyn rapper working with a bag of mixtapes and a mic.

Jack and his mythical selection of guitar pedals, DIY guitars and distortion trickery was a new sound, fuzzed over and stripped to basics to showcase his talent and homage to classic blues guitarists.

In my quest to see The White Stripes live, I was ready to see them at Reading Festival in 2003 after smaller venue tickets sold out in minutes. Sadly, Jack broke one of his fingers and pulled the gig but The White Stripes had released landmark album Elephant, which – looking back – was my favorite album of the decade. Releasing the indie fanboy, I decided that a broken finger wasn’t going to get in the way of me seeing The White Stripes. I investigated flights to America where the tour was still going ahead and flew out to Denver to see The White Stripes for the first time on 19th September 2003.

I remember the date because I was given a rare print commissioned for the gig by an artist in San Francisco. Like Jack’s fascination with the glamour and appreciation of vinyl, the free print (see below) was an example of unique, home made merchandise, a world apart from familiar hoodies with any band logo printed in bold. Naturally, the print is framed and living on my bedroom wall.

The gig itself was at the Fillmore Auditorium, a 3,500 capacity  hall which used to be an ice rink. The venue was draped in red curtains and dim white lights, like a vampiric ballroom.  Before the show, I visited a music shop near the venue and found fans openly drinking bottles of beer while flicking through records and buying vintage rock tee shirts. “I just wanna see Jack White play guitar, that’s all. He’s the best” said a tipsy, skinny fan who was destined for the moshpit. But were there moshpits at Jack White gigs? Were moshpits even allowed in Denver, which seemed to be a couple of decades behind the rest of the world?

Stepping outside the shop, I bought a ticket from a tout for $20 and saw the venue was enthusiastic but not full. But this was before Spotify and new music spread slowly across America and alternative rock wasn’t high on the agenda for many radio stations. The White Stripes eventually changed radio playlists and MTV too, enlisting original directors and making Kate Moss dance on a pole. This was the near future of course and the Denver gig was part of the tour charge for an album that changed the attitude of American radio by putting classic rock in a blender and replacing pomp with raw passion.

The start of the gig saw Jack White shuffle on to the stage nervously, hiding behind the opening bars of a song. Seconds later, he started to scream before Meg had picked up her sticks. Ball and Biscuit was incredible, as was The Dead Leaves and The Dirty Ground. Surrounded by locals, the scene had shades of the bit in Back To The Future where Michael J Fox does that guitar solo to a stunned audience. Comfortable couples looked at each other nervously managing smiles, slowly retreating from the front of  stage assault while the gang I saw in the music shop were stood at the front, drunk and chanting.

Strangely, Meg took to the front of stage to sing her own song, In The Cold, Cold Night. Everyone went to the bar at that point but it didn’t change the buzz in the Fillmore Auditorium. Since Denver, I’ve seen The White Stripes a few times but those gigs didn’t come close to showing me the key change in American rock music I saw happening before my eyes at the Fillmore Auditorium. Yes, I’m gutted that The White Stripes split up but 13 years together and 6 albums is a decent legacy. And, for the record, there was a moshpit in Denver. I’d like to think it was the first one it had ever seen.

Thanks Jack and Meg. We’ll miss you.

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