“Well, you’re in your little room, and you’re working on something good,” Jack White once sang. “But if it’s really good, you’re gonna need a bigger room.” “Little Room” was just a forty-five-second ditty on 2002’s White Blood Cells, but it also spoke to the paradox of fame: Once you’re a celebrity, you can never again be the person who created the art that made you one. Five years later, the White Stripes are genuine rock stars touring the far reaches of Canada in an effort to play all the little rooms they can find — elementary school classrooms, hockey rinks, cramped pool halls, Inuit Elder meetings, fishing boats and city buses.
For their tenth anniversary show on Sunday in remote harbor town Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, they managed to find one room that was nearly perfect: The Savoy, an intimate theater built in the early 1920s to replicate old Victorian music halls — and which happens to be schemed almost entirely in red, black and white, and (if you believe the locals) haunted by as many ghosts as the band’s music. Both sides of the “White family” were in attendance for the occasion, and eager fans dressed in color-coordinated outfits were rewarded with small cups of champagne by the Stripes road crew pre-show.
Over two thrilling hours, Jack and Meg laid out their catalog in trash-candy collage form — stitching old riffs into new songs, teasing familiar melodies, improvising verses and balancing nostalgic rarities (“Wasting My Time”) with the majority of its new material. All the songs flowed into one viscerally played stream of consciousness, and as they bled together, the common element between them — White’s encyclopedic command of American musical traditions — became clearer. Ultimately, the only ghosts of the night were the ones White summoned from his influences: Son House (“Death Letter,” “John the Revelator”), Blind Willie Johnson (“Lord, Send Me an Angel”), Bob Dylan (“One More Cup of Coffee”), Dolly Parton (“Jolene”) and even Little Richard (“Ready Teddy”).
In the meantime, the band paid homage to a rich local musical heritage founded in the fiddle music imported by Scottish immigrants in the 1800s. The duo took the stage heralded and flanked by a tartan-clad bagpipe troupe, and their Gaelic stomp “Prickly Thorn, Sweetly Worn” (Jack on mandolin, Meg on bass drum and a local teenager on bagpipe) brought the house down, with drunken men in kilts dancing perilously on the precipice of the old room’s balcony. Yet despite the Canadian flags emblazoned on the band’s amplifiers, what was ultimately clear at all times was how American a rock star White is, a gifted myth-maker who completely understands the power of an image. Even as he sang about “disappearing” (“When I Hear My Name”), the silhouette he cast on the giant red curtain behind him only seemed to grow larger and more menacing.
For all their paranoia about “selling out,” if the White Stripes have become one of today’s best bands, it’s precisely because they haven’t grown up so much that they don’t recognize rock and roll as theater and musicians as entertainers. White has always claimed that the “childish” presentation of his music — the candy-colored motif and self-mythologies — have been a means to distract listeners from the fact that his little band is just playing the blues. In reality, the best thing it does is make audiences of cynical adults and information-bombarded adolescents listen to the White Stripes’ music like children, drawing them to a melody, a story, a rhythm and a performer powerful enough to put them together.
By the time Jack merrily waltzed his “sister” offstage to deafening applause (waving the flags of the province and city) even 82-year-old fiddle legend Buddy MacMaster had risen shakily to his feet for a standing ovation. That’s the great thing about birthdays: The older you get, the better it is to feel like a kid again.