The White Stripes at the Detroit Institute of Arts
“That was the best thing we’ve ever done. It was also the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
So were the thoughts expressed by a long-forgotten big wig at the Detroit Institute of Arts. What they had “done” was bring in the White Stripes to perform two sets in the hallowed Diego Rivera Court. When booked, the White Stripes were moderately ascendent. By the time of the performance on November 2nd, 2001, they were stratospheric and lava hot. The performance, all guts and glory and emotion and resplendent joy, had pulled in THOUSANDS to the Beaux Arts-style building that day, the museum’s largest single-day attendance in over seventy years of existence. That was the best part.
The “worst” part was those thousands, many of whom had not set foot in the building since grade school field trips, really had no idea about the space they were occupying. Completely enveloped by 27 larger-than-life scenes conceived and executed by Diego Rivera in 1932-33, the Detroit Industry Murals stand as one of the most breathtaking and important displays of art in the city, if not beyond. As a stylized near-deification of automobile plants, communal labor, racial harmony and vaccination, the murals themselves (done as frescoes, paint applied to wet plaster) once dried, form an integral part of the wall.
But rock and roll fans of 2001 cared not. With the court well beyond capacity and the overflow crowd spilling deep into the adjacent Great Hall, over-eager attendees were climbing the planters in front of the massive expanses of both the north and south walls. Desperate for a better view, a clear line of sight or just caught up in the electricity of the moment, people were carelessly touching, casually rubbing and leaning against these priceless works of irreplaceable art at the heart of the literal, metaphorical and historical cultural center of Detroit. Risking the destruction of valued fresco history all just for the hope of catching a glimpse of what was, in 2001, the NOW cultural heartbeat of the city.
Thankfully, the only noticeable damage done on that evening was the ringing of eardrums.
The White Stripes’ performance was nothing short of impeccable. The 33-song cavalcade ceremoniously kicked off with Jack White literally waving a Detroit flag, knowingly singing “Little Room” in the biggest room it had ever been performed in. The incongruity was immediately pushed further with the trilling screech of “The Big Three Killed My Baby,” as intensely critical a song as has ever been written about the industry that built Detroit. All performed in a room that, save maybe the Rouge Plant’s blast furnaces, is as close as to a temple as exists for the automobile industry. No sacred cows here. Iconoclasm exemplified.
Jack and Meg fully hit their stride and power through a medley fueled by another renowned Detroit commodity...rock and roll. Their assertive take on Iggy Pop’s stomping “I’m Bored” weaved seamlessly into the Gories’ hypnotic “Omologato” and by the time they were crushing on the MC5’s atomic anthem “Looking at You” the result was maddeningly perfect, a daft tribute to the oft-overlooked local cultural fuel that helped ignite and launch the White Stripes to the perch where they could ultimately propel themselves globally.
Jack urged attendees to go check out some beloved home-grown Gordon Newton art before the set break then he and Meg came back all taut and attitudinal with impassioned takes on gems like “Let’s Shake Hands” and “Fell In Love With a Girl” sitting comfortably amongst covers of Robert Johnson (“Stop Breaking Down”), Loretta Lynn (“Rated X”) and Blind Willie McTell (“Your Southern Can Is Mine”) before tying it all together succinctly with the White Stripes blasting through their bona fide set closer “Screwdriver.”
Knowing full well the gravity and importance of the 50th installment of Third Man Records’ Vault subscription series, here in its entirety is the White Stripes legendary night at the Detroit Institute of Arts. With striking soundboard audio that wonderfully captures the energy radiating off the band that evening while subtly balancing the cavernous BOOM of tube amplifiers in a room with only bodies to deaden the sound, the two LPs here are lovingly pressed on red and white vinyl. All sounds were painstakingly mastered, cut, and pressed at the Third Man Cass Corridor premises, less than a mile down the road from the marble fortress of the DIA.
Utilizing said audio as its bedrock, the package also features a pro-shot DVD of the complete White Stripes performance, sourced directly from the previously untapped video archives of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Vibrant and captivating, the footage manages to bring the viewer into the room, transported to the time and place where such magnetism unfurled.
The artwork here utilizes a cache of previously unseen images shot that day by noted Detroit photographer Steve Shaw. Capturing the band at delightfully opposing tableaus...the strikingly empty soundcheck where skylights find the sun dappled mise en scene of Rivera’s murals as a humbling backdrop to the hauntingly dark and imposing mid-set overhead spotlit vignette of Jack and Meg....the imagery here is among the best we have ever had the luxury of using for such an important moment in the White Stripes’ history. Gracing both the LP and DVD covers, the choicest Shaw images are reproduced here in a collection of four stunning photographic prints.
The White Stripes' at the Detroit Institute of Arts was an exercise in inherent juxtapositions. The best and the worst. High art and low art. Big rooms and little rooms. Past and present. Respect and irreverence. Hyper-local and widely global. Emptiness and overcrowding. Darkness and light. The White Stripes embody and attack all of these. A mess of contradictions laid bare for all to see and listen and love.