Strokes, Stripes Paint NYC Red

Underground bands bring the garage to Radio City

The White Stripes and the Strokes -- two heroes of the underground movement -- took the stage at New York City's Radio City Music Hall prepared to kiss-off their benchmark albums in a style befitting their status: a victory lap around a hallowed venue. Soon, the two bands will begin the arduous task of preparing follow-up albums and true musical reckoning awaits -- the Strokes will be looking to ward off a nearly inevitable sophomore slump and the White Stripes, with three like-minded albums already under their monochromatic belts, will be attempting to assess how much farther they can push their muse.

Pre-show questions hung in the air: How would the bands react to such a gig after so much touring? Would the popular songs be unrecognizable? Would they even be played at all? Two-and-a-half hours later, such questions seemed insignificant (for the record: great, yes and, in only one instance, no). Following on the heels of a sweaty, intimate show at Irving Plaza the previous evening, the Stripes and the Strokes gave the NYC crowd their money's worth in both expected and unexpected ways.

To say Jack White is one of today's most mesmerizing performers would not be a stretch -- by any stretch. His presence, coupled with a penchant for bending and warping the boundaries of traditional song structure, keeps most eyes focused on him and his low-rent guitar. Part performance artist, part carnival barker, White is a master of improvisation as his versions of blues classics each night can attest. At Radio City, his voice was taut, wildly swooping and encircling the music, running in place at times, waiting breathlessly for the crowd to catch up. Prowling the stage, summoning screeches and howls from his guitar, White and his "sis" Meg ran through a cursory number of band classics including "Little Room" (a song whose irony was not lost on anyone -- especially on this night), "Apple Blossom," "Hotel Yorba" and a pleading version of "Jolene".

Meg took lead vocals on "Rated X," but it was her drumming -- which has improved immeasurably as the tours have piled up -- and its steady propulsion that provided Jack the freedom to reassemble his songs in different incarnations. The only exception was "We're Going to be Friends" which was performed as sublimely as it was recorded and prompted the crowd to clap along -- an action Jack encouraged, taking delight in the crowd's enthusiasm.

The band's only cliché in an otherwise daring evening was the omission of "Fell in Love with a Girl," the song which helped introduce them to the people who bought the tickets in the first place. Judging from the thunderous ovation they received after polishing off an encore of "Bol Weevil," however, there didn't seem to be any hard feelings.

Unfortunately, while the music was daring, the Stripes were somewhat swallowed up by the mammoth stage. And with that, much of the subtlety -- the humor and the pathos -- was lost among the many, many rows of seats. Although the larger crowd bemused Jack's arena-rock love ("I thought 6,000 people would be louder than this," he teased good-naturedly), the Radio City Music Hall experience still found the band on somewhat unfamiliar terrain.

While the Stripes seemed to shrink against the mammoth stage, The Strokes' stature grew exponentially, providing a glimpse into their future. One that involves arenas and award show podiums, stadiums and super-sized signing bonuses.

Lead singer Julian Casablancas, grounded by a recent knee injury and perched atop a stool, led the band through its paces in a fiery, sixty-five-minute set. Opening with a new song, "The Way It Is," the band kept the crowd continually stoked with note-perfect versions of "Someday," "Hard to Explain," "Barely Legal" and, of course, "Last Nite." New songs -- which stylistically could have been lifted from their debut -- included "You Talk Way Too Much" and "Meet Me in the Bathroom." Barely resisting the temptation to stand up, Casablancas poured his frustration into his performance, squirming and writhing on the stool as his bandmates furiously tore through their set.

What was abundantly clear from their performance was that the band's emotional focus is not the lead singer, but rather guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. Hammond showed undeniable star quality as he hammered out his solos and ran through a series of rock star poses that didn't seem particularly corny or hackneyed. His energy clearly propelled the band, and the rest of the guys -- drummer Fab Moretti, guitarist Nick Valensi and bassist Nikolai Fraiture -- were content to concentrate on their playing.

The set's last song was the show's emotional highlight -- a popping version of "NYC Cops" with Jack White on guitar. Though the song was removed from Is This It following the events of September 11th, if the crowd's reaction to it was any indication, it will find itself back in the rotation permanently.

All in all, the gig answered any doubts and allayed any fears that the trappings of fame would lead to either band selling out, whatever that means anymore. Playing in such a venerable venue as Radio City Music Hall also demonstrated that these two former scuffling lo-fi combos clean up real well. And at the height of their music powers, they know enough to recognize the dazzling potential of live music played in a venue that's -- gasp! -- nice.