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. The latter examines how the White Stripes’ approach to music — as well as their relationship with fans, the press, and the world at large — allowed the band to survive an otherwise exceedingly turbulent decade for superstar musicians.
In the live album, we hear the band’s remarkable ability to regularly provide a fresh take on its recorded work. Jack and Meg White could make otherwise giant songs like “Fell in Love With a Girl” sound intimate just as easily as they could make a nuanced crooner like “Little Ghost” resonate with an arena-sized crowd. Jack White’s energy night in and night out was virtually unrivaled by any live performer this decade. If his absolute dedication to keeping things organic (no set lists), produced sometimes inconsistent vocals and guitar work, it nonetheless made each concert a worthy experience. On Under Great White Northern Lights, his vocals fall apart on “Blue Orchid” and his guitars stutter during “The Union Forever,” but on an up-tempo “Ball and Biscuit,” he nails the guitar solo in a way he utterly failed to do in his previous concert DVD, Under Blackpool Lights. This particular set happened to coincide with the band’s peak loud-rock phase, bagpipes and all, following the release of Icky Thump.
The album provides remarkable insight into the live process of the White Stripes, but the real gem here is the documentary, which is of the band’s 2007 tour through the bowels of Canada, the last tour the band would go on before Meg’s anxiety put the White Stripes on as-of-now indefinite hiatus. The documentary thankfully eschews talking heads fawning over the band’s merits, instead giving Jack and Meg a long-overdue chance to explain their approach. (Jack says the look of the band was planned upon the White Stripes’ conception in 1997, but that the band’s music is by definition an organically driven process.) Jack’s temper got him into trouble early in the decade, but by 2007, the only strains of resentment that flash in Jack’s face are whenever the media gets involved.
The documentary also traces the band’s attempts to perform mini-concerts before their headlining spots in each town they visit. These concerts are occasionally inspired but mostly hilarious (such as a Thelonius Monk-esque one note concert). But perhaps the greatest aspect of the documentary is its ability to show a nuanced portrait of the dynamic between Jack and Meg. Despite Jack’s devoted sensitivity to his ex-wife, he’s a hopeless alpha male, dominating conversation, constantly speaking for Meg, leaving her with a perpetual sarcastic glare. And yet, the chemistry between the two is undeniable — a piano duet to Get Behind Me Satan‘s “White Moon” brings Meg to tears and displays that the connection goes beyond would-be-sibling love. If not for the music press’s tendency to gossip monger, it wouldn’t be a stretch to speculate whether Jack’s remarriage, and the birth of Jack’s second child toward the end of the Canadian tour, played into the anxiety that would ultimately end the collaboration.
Nonetheless, the fact that the White Stripes were able to stay so relatively private was one of the luxuries provided by the music industry’s collapse. It was only the band’s work ethic and devotion to regular recording and performance that kept the band going, and the resulting body of work is staggering. While the White Stripes arose with the Strokes and the Hives as one of the first of countless NME-backed bands charged with saving guitar rock last decade, Jack and Meg by far had the most consistent and varied career of any of these artists, winning over critics just as quickly as they did MTV, arena crowds, and the charts. When Jack White joined Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Keith Richards in the recent documentaries Shine a Light and It Might Get Loud, it was easy to compare his respective merits. Under Great White Northern Lights is a perfect explanation of the band’s significance to doubters, now and in the future.