It’s not all that hard to talk the talk of sincere garage rock scholarship, but walking the walk is another matter entirely. The White Stripes — certainly the most visible of the current wave of back-to-basics acts –managed to do the latter, both gracefully and passionately, at their first theater-sized show in Gotham.
Front man Jack White set the tone by not only arranging for country legend Loretta Lynn to open the gig, but by all but taking audience members by the hand to guarantee Lynn an attentive audience. He prefaced the songstress’ short set by asking the assembled throng to be “polite boys and girls” — not a condescending term coming from a singer who refers to all his peers in similar terms — and later by joining her for duets on “Fist City” and “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man.”
Lynn took to White’s presence readily, flirting and vamping with panache. Her refusal to alter her Opry-honed m.o. won over many a naysayer — particularly on a set-closing singalong of “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
Jack and Meg White took the stage after a short break and made it clear that they needn’t get back to their roots — since they’ve yet to abandon them. In front of a simple stage backdrop was a slightly outsized version of the Mondrian-styled projections they’ve always used. The duo stomped and stammered through a too-short set that split the difference between Stripes’ standards and material from the just-released V2 album, “Elephant.”
Set never degenerated into a sales pitch for the new disc. Opening with “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” the pair careened into “I Think I Smell a Rat,” one of their most feral tunes. The latter tune was tempered somewhat by the interpolation of a verse or two from Woody Guthrie’s “Take a Whiff on Me.”
That evangelical sharing of obscure — at least to a post-modern rock audience — music was less in evidence here than at past Stripes shows, but the influence of past masters was unmistakable in riffs and references too numerous to detail.
Pacing was slightly more clever than usual, with Meg White emerging from behind her drum kit to offer a kittenish lead vocal on “In the Cold, Cold Night” — a ditty that suggested Marilyn Monroe offering up her best Wanda Jackson impersonation. Jack White played similarly fast and loose with cultural signifiers, morphing into a crawling king snake for a nastily extended “Ball and Biscuit” then immediately downshifting into pre-pubescent innocence for a wide-eyed “I Think We’re Going to Be Friends.”
There are those who dismiss the White Stripes as contrived — as if the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley weren’t — but stripped of the costumes, image and shtick, the duo’s songs hold up as well as those of any band in the past decade. That alone makes their further moves worth tracking.
The White Stripes play the Coachella Music and Arts Festival on April 27.