Sunday, May 31, 2020

The White Stripes Live at Dionysus September 16th, 2000

We left Cincinnati later than we should have. A visit to Shake-It Records looms large in my memory and we definitely rolled straight to the club, Dionysus. On the campus of Oberlin College and apparently run by the students there, what could be an easy target to shit on is actually pretty damn cool. I mean, hell, the college I was enrolled in that semester wasn't booking Sleater-Kinney. 

The show itself still sticks out as one of the most transformative the White Stripes EVER played. Like if there was ever so clearly a "before" and "after" moment in the history of the White Stripes live shows, I'd push the pin firmly into the date September 16th, 2000.

I don't recall the crowds the previous two nights (Chicago and Newport, KY) necessarily "getting" the Stripes. Sure, the performances were solid, folks may have even picked up on it a little, but they were big rooms, law of averages probably explains it. But at Dionysus, man, it's a small room, maybe 400 capacity, and with a low stage, the space felt like a and sweaty, probably not being utilized for its intended use and primarily populated with kids who've got NOTHING better to do. Receptors open, transmissions receiving...just give 'em something worthwhile and the response will be wild.

Watching from the merch table at the back of the room, you could feel the band take off. The show starts off interestingly enough (can't ever recall "Your Southern Can Is Mine" appearing so early in a set) and from around "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" onward, its as if afterburners are on full throttle, every move just of-the-moment and powerful and important and happening right in front of your face. 

After futzing around for months, the fuzz feedback mainline of "Dead Leaves" is finally firmly established in the way all would come to know and love it. "Death Letter" is the raucous rail-splitter while the placid verses of "Stop Breaking Down" achieve the song a tempered duality as leveraged by the absolute savage slide of the choruses, while the uncharacteristic off mic screaming in "One More Cup of Coffee" has you realize that mind-bending covers of Son House, Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan poured out one after the other in rapid succession, a most holy trinity of White Stripes heroes if there ever was one.

From "Astro" forward...there's so evidently a transcendent musical connection between the two entities on stage, of the same brain, taking action without thought, a Darwinian evolution that should crawl across millennia transpiring in matter of mere minutes. On a Saturday night. In Ohio.

Listening back now, nearly 20 years later, it STILL gives me goosebumps. The way "Jack the Ripper" (a song they'd goofed on a handful of times previously) melts into "Farmer John" (a song they'd NEVER previously goofed on) and straight into, hands-down, the best version of "St. James Infirmary" the band would ever perform and arguably epicenter of the aforementioned "before" and "after" designations.

To lay ears to the recording now is to hear "St. James" evolving in real time as an arrangement heretofore unknown, just exploratory explosive accents primally bashing away as entree to the song, unrecognizable from its released version, pummeling inauspiciously into the first verse, Jack's voice rich, full, expressive, like a vase holding ten thousand orchids hand-painted by O'Keeffe.  Then completely out of left-field, Jack offers the second verse double time, damn near jazzy or show tune(ful), humbly paying respect to the roots of this Cab Calloway composition. In my recollection of the evening, I feel like I was holding my breath at this moment. As if to ask, timidly, scared, fearful of failure or catastrophic collapse "can they do it?" And wildly, with abandon, Meg is RIGHT there with him, never missing a beat for the next TWO verses. Weeks, days, shit a half HOUR early this would have been impossible. The chops were not there, the telekinetic o-mind wavelength was, previously, nonexistent. And without ever telegraphing the move, out of nowhere, Jack calls verse four back to the explosive accents, half-time, reigning it in with a delightful smirk, at this point completely showing off how shit hot he and Meg are. Just making it up as they go at this point, verse five crosses back to double time, the intensity somehow amplified, improbably kicked up a few notches and culminating into one solitary, strong expositional statement, like a goddamned full-body statue of Teddy Roosevelt, arm outstretched, pointing, confidently, ready to decimate whatever gets in the way. And that, you little maniacs, is when the White Stripes first hit that apex, as if levitating, where they could do no wrong. Exquisite beauty. The reason we are all here today.

A few songs later and unexpectedly, Jack just starts making shit up off the top of his head. We've labeled it "Just Keep On Walking (improv)" here and that, again, you lucky freaks, is the first time the White Stripes ever just made something up in front of a crowd. Said approach would be responsible for some of my personal favorite moments from the band (including "Little Cream Soda" even though I wasn't even there to witness it in person) and straight into "Screwdriver." Jack teases, if only for a moment, the drawn out and confrontational manner of both the MC5's "I Just Don't Know" and the Gories "48 Hours" and yet somehow builds upon it. Goes further. Creates distance. Catches nirvana. 

Leaving the stage after said culmination, you can hear the crowd just losing it. Apeshit. The opening act, who almost certainly no one there even knew of prior to this evening. EVERYONE was urging them to return for an encore, including the members of Sleater-Kinney, who were all but pushing Jack and Meg back onstage. Really, truly, this never happens, it should never happen, yet witnesses to history and this tape prove, "Let's Build a Home" just smokes before the tape runs out in a brief moment of Basinski-esque disintegration.

I'm a bastard when it comes to hyperbole...I HATE when people blow shit out of proportion. I don't have time for it. But I honestly do not think the White Stripes ever played a more perfect show. Yeah Manaus '05 was bonkers, Tasmania '06 is electrifying, Mississippi '07 brings tears, Detroit Institute of Arts, Peel sessions...there's no shortage of GREAT shows with this band. But ones where everything clicks. Where the band is almost a visage in hyper-speed while their surroundings are but props calcified in amber, where it feels like the incalculable number of nerve endings of every last synapse of every living being in the world were all connected onstage that night...well, damn, Oberlin it is. Because while those other shows may carry more emotion, may explore further depths of the catalog, or engaged multiples of more fans...September 16th, 2000 was the catalyst that enabled all of them to ever happen.

So for that, I'm grateful.

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Addendum - OR - Shit That Didn't Make Sense Publishing Anywhere Else But This Blog

- The previous night in Cincinnati we stayed with Patrick Keeler of the Greenhornes. One of the factors that caused us to have to drive straight to Dionysus was that Patrick was printing out a custom illustrated cover of Jack Lawrence to accompany the CD-r of the (at the time yet-to-be-released) Greenhornes self-titled album he had given to Jack White. Seriously, the color printout was taking FOREVER. Easily twenty minutes. And after it had completed, Meg was all "Well, I want one too." And we just couldn't wait, we had to say "next time" or something like that. I don't think she ever got her custom cover. There were cool as hell, Saturday morning cartoon-esque illustrations of all the Greenhornes as I remember but I don't think they ended up ever being used anywhere. Would love to see them again someday.

- At Shake-It I got a copy of the Queens of the Stone Age "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret" 7-inch

- First band onstage this evening was C.O.C.O.

- Smoking was "suggested" prohibited at all of the shows on this tour because Corin of Sleater-Kinney was pregnant (though it was messaged in a way so as not to divulge the reasoning)

- An autographed pizza (or half pizza? a slice?) was sold at the merch table this evening

- Sleater-Kinney opened their set with a version of "Fortunate Son." I have a stone vivid memory of seeing a European-style CD single of S-K's "You're No Rock and Roll Fun" with "Fortunate Son" as the bonus track, at some record store over the river in Windsor, probably no more than a year after this gig. I didn't buy it and for YEARS I searched for another copy. Only since the robustness of Discogs has really become self-evident (the past four years?) have I realized that this CD legitimately does not exist. I have no idea what I actually saw in that Canadian record store and I think about it FAR too often.

- After the gig a gaggle of us made our way to a campus house party and were explicitly NOT let in. The whole "who invited you?" kinda attitude. Really, in all my years van touring with the Stripes, I don't recall ever even ATTEMPTING to go to a party after a gig. It was just...never on the agenda. So really, to me, it didn't seem like that big of a deal to not be allowed in. But Carrie of S-K thought it so hilarious that she actually told the story in her autobiography AND as part of an animated short film.

- After not getting into the party, we made way back to S-K's hotel, where Janet let me, Jack, and Meg crash in with her in her room. We watched "My Bodyguard" on tv. On tour with Pavement the year before they had given us their "day rooms" and I thought THAT was pretty generous, but Janet foregoing her once-every-three-nights solo room and even sharing a bed with Meg so that we could rest in relative comfort was such a selfless gesture that I am still amazed by it today. Tried to pass that same generosity on any time the Dirtbombs were lucky enough to be in hotels and an opening band on tour. If ever a rock and roll road tradition to further promulgate, my vote goes to this one.

- Next night was at Little Brother's in Columbus, another really good show. Sleater-Kinney did an unreleased song that night that they were just calling "Wipers" which, to me, sounded like "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult. Don't think that song ever turned into anything. Maybe a year or two later I remember seeing some tape trading page where someone claimed to have a recording of the Stripes. All I can remember is that their online handle was something along the lines of "Veganxterrorist" I've never been able to confirm they actually recorded the show, I have never found a copy of even been aware of anyone else who has ever heard it. These are the kinds of odd brain wrinkles that still keep me up at night and I'm afraid that I will die without ever getting a definitive answer on. Such is life.