Release Date: Mar 16, 2010
Genre(s): Rock, Alternative, Live
Record label: Warner Bros.
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This concert CD/DVD does a great job ?of highlighting both sides of The White Stripes’ carefully controlled public persona. Interviews in which Jack White plays the misunderstood artist are intercut with go-for-broke performances, and a wrenching final image humanizes the pair’s relationship. If Under the Great White Northern Lights is their last hurrah, it’s one hell of a goodbye.
Release Date: March 16Director: Emmett MalloyStudio/Run Time: Warner Bros., 92 mins. Curious, all-encompassing minimalists celebrate 10th anniversary by traversing Canadian countryside Whenever Jack and Meg White make music in Under Great White Northern Lights (the new documentary about their 2007 Canadian tour), they’re a peppermint swirl of electricity—the culmination of decades of greasy blues and DIY punk; the American garage writ large. They’re the heirs apparent to everyone from Ledbelly to Bill Monroe to John Lee Hooker to the MC5, Led Zeppelin, the Flat Duo Jets and Nirvana.
It’s no real secret that the White Stripes are a monster live act, making it a bit perplexing why until 2010 a proper live album has eluded their discography. Considering that the reigning King and Queen of Garage Rock have hardly slackened to catch their breath since arriving on the music scene in the late ‘90s—churning out new releases every one or two years without exception and regularly perching atop critics’ year-end best-of lists—it may simply be that the time hadn’t made itself opportune to properly put their arena-burning credentials into context. Following Meg White’s retreat from the public eye due to a recurring bout with acute anxiety, and with Jack White spinning off more side projects than you can shake a stick at (including two chart-storming indie rock supernovas, pushing his record label Third Man Records into accelerated gear, as well as several producing gigs), the stretch from 2007’s Icky Thump to 2010 has been the longest span of time that the public has gone without a studio album from the Detroit duo.
It can easily be argued that the White Stripes were the greatest traditional rock 'n' roll band of the 2000s, if not the greatest overall pop band of the decade. The fact that the White Stripes were able to overcome decade-spanning cynicism among the indie classes and gossip-obsessed mainstream coverage was a testament to the Stripes' ability to produce fantastic recorded work along with a scintillating live show. Under Great White Northern Lights shows both sides of the band's moxie, documenting the band's already legendary performances with a live album and documentary.
In the final scene of the White Stripes tour documentary Under Great White Northern Lights, Jack and Meg sit on a bench in front of 88 black-and-white keys. Jack starts to play the piano and sing his ballad "White Moon". Meg starts to cry. It's a heartbreaking, out-of-nowhere surge of intimacy that briefly lifts the curtain on one of the most fascinatingly private bands to ever reach arena-rock ubiquity.
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 [b]Jack White[/b] 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 [b]Meg[/b]. The first piece of concert footage is a thunderous version of first single [b]‘Let’s Shake Hands’[/b], 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.
Given the White Stripes’ reputation for powerful concerts, it’s a little surprising that they waited until more than a decade into their career to release a live album. However, Under Great White Northern Lights was worth the wait: While nothing can really replace seeing the band live, this set captures most of their riveting on-stage presence. The album was recorded during the Stripes’ 2007 Canadian tour, which was such a special experience for them that they chronicled it with a DVD as well.
The last time we saw The White Stripes in active duty was 2007, the year they gifted us their sixth, to date final studio album, the barking Icky Thump. The record was set to have two accompanying tours; in typically perverse fashion, the regular one was cancelled after seasoned gig veteran Meg came down with ‘acute anxiety problems’, and the band has been virtually dormant since. Before that, though, came a dementedly whimsical jaunt around of all ten of Canada’s provinces.
All but the best live albums can’t help but share the spurious feel of at least partial irrelevance, but it’s easier to grant some respect to ones which wear their live-ness boldly, as a virtue rather than something to be masked. The White Stripes’s Under Great White Northern Lights is the pinnacle of that type of album, which means that fundamentally it’s a mess but a fascinating one, a kind of protracted stagger through the band’s setlist, wending its way through improvised lyrical changes, cavernous feedback and bursts of off-kilter noise. Presented in tandem with a similarly titled tour film directed by Emmet Malloy, the album presents itself as the inverse of a studio product, spilling over with ill-advised side roads and shambling misadventures.
"Sing with me, Yellowknife!" Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about the White Stripes first live album is the knowledge that much of it was recorded in towns with populations smaller than most British football grounds. Released to accompany Emmett Malloy's documentary of the same name, the record captures a tour that took in gigs in each of Canada's territories – hence shows in places like tiny Arctic town Iqaluit. The Whites' contribution to the sometimes brilliant, frequently inessential live genre straddles those two categories.
White Stripes live experiences have been varied for me. As a seventeen year old seeing them at Glastonbury 2002 was quite spectacular. I nearly ruptured my bladder from holding it so long, not wanting to miss a single second. They were ferocious and quite frankly astonishing at times; if I was wearing a hat my hand would have been firmly holding onto it.
Capturing the White Stripes' first-ever Canadian tour in 2007 while also marking the Detroit duo's 10-year anniversary and release of Icky Thump, concert film Under Great White Northern Lights became a true documentary when weeks after its completion, drummer Meg White canceled the remainder of their worldwide tour (including the Austin City Limits Music Festival) citing acute exhaustion. As such, it offers a captivating and beautifully rendered window into what might have been the band's final days. Mirroring the divorced couple's sonic relationship, Meg is introverted and soft-spoken, requiring subtitles when she actually does speak, while Jack White overcompensates in every possible way, alternately liberated and constricted by the Stripes' tricolor minimalism.