I've got this policy about never writing negative words about live performances because, shit, I don't imagine that it's easy to go on stage for a succession of nights to entertain a needy crowd hoping to hear that song you've played a few hundred times and are probably sick of. Plus, it takes a certain amount of balls to do these things, and as a man with no known musical talent himself, I'm predisposed to defer to those with courage. Everyone's a critic and most people are DJs.
Still, something was a little off with tonight's White Stripes show at Madison Square Garden. They'd just completed a heroic tour of Canada, and I don't think Jack and Meg have headlined venues the size of MSG. They seemed a little dwarfed -- there wasn't the kind of energy and bravado that it takes to fill that kind of room. No banter (which I don't necessarily mind; stage banter with the crowd can be a pain in the ass) but also little recognition by Jack that he was playing to an audience. You're waiting for the rush, for something to uncork, the kind of spontaneous intensity that distinguishes a murderous rock show from a competent performance, but that wasn't coming. It was studious intensity, almost tense, but not in a good dramatic way, almost in a nervous way. There was an excellent reworking of "Fell in Love With a Girl," Jack's guitar sounded great, Meg made for a good silhouette projected on a wall of red. But still.
Then they stepped out for the encore and everything seemed right. Jack was lighter, the crowd was more kinetic, and there was the feel that yes, this is why you all came here to be together after all.* Songs that I'd never loved ("Little Ghost") sounded kind of thrilling and the odd tension that I was discerning (imagining?) was gone.
Was something off-balance here? Am I imagining it? I'll blame myself.** It was the concert I've most looked forward to in 2007, so expectations were distorted. I've been enjoying "Icky Thump" even more than their other albums. The seats were great, on floor with a direct view of the stage. I waited for the passion and the play.
*Needless digression: One of the small good things about seeing live shows is the people-watching, and the big difference between a general admission venue and a place like MSG is assigned seating. The people around you, it's like being on a flight, and you're forced to observe them for awhile. When my friends and I walked out we immediately started talking about the trio in front of us: a completely wasted guy in his mid-20s, a seemingly long-suffering girlfriend or wife, and an older guy that appeared to be his father. The guy and his dad kept grabbing each other by the head and talking into each other's face. At one point, there was man-on-dad face kissing. Periodically, the guy would try to dance, but then fall onto the startled row in front of him. The woman seemed frustrated and embarrassed; the dad appeared to be giving his son woman advice from time to time; the dad didn't seem to enjoy the show, but pretended to for the guy's benefit. It was somewhat reminiscent of Timmy Baterman, and another reminder of why you shouldn't intern your kid in the Micmac Burial Ground.
**It might have been some kind of personal funk. Somehow I managed to get fucking disoriented when I came out of the subway and confused myself on east-west directions. By now the geography of this city is tattooed on my brain. I never get lost, and I've got the instincts of a homing pigeon. Drop me in the middle of Calcutta without a map or translator, and I'll immediately know where I am and where I want to go. Still, I somehow got fucking confused about finding 8th and 33rd. Friends speculated that I suffered a mild stroke. If I suffered a mild stroke, that might explain my mild reaction.