Though I caught a few other notable acts at the Ottawa Bluesfest on July 8th, 2007 (including a Texas guitarist named Bob Schneider and another from Nova Scotia named Joel Plaskett and his Emergency), the meat and potatoes of the day was contained in the wonderfully odd and shockingly thunderous American duo The White Stripes.
Known equally for their red stripes, the well-branded and masterfully marketed pair of siblings (or were they married, or neither? Right there you got some good marketing…) were in the middle of an equally odd and ambitious tour across Canada – one that would have them play in each of our ten provinces and three territories (who does that?), and in some pretty unique venues at that, like a bowling alley in Saskatoon, a flour mill in London, and an old classroom in Ottawa’s Bronson Centre where they performed an acoustic set for a small group of children from the CHEO cancer ward – and while I had never been a huge fan of the duo I was pretty excited to catch a set.
There are so many funny things about The White Stripes, not so much ha-ha funny; more like “…does this taste funny?” First and foremost is of course the fact that the guitar/drum act is missing a bass player. Omitting the greatest instrument in popular music was an unfortunate yet mercifully small trend in newrock shortly after the turn of the century and I have a hard time believing it worked. Though I gotta say, as I stood on the LeBreton Flats watching The White Stripes rain consistent bombast upon the festival crowd I had to admit that they did just fine without the blatant lower end, and while I spent most of my time thinking that as good as it was the music would just be that much better with a solid bass player, a little bit of my brain kept trying to convince me that it was exactly this omission that elevated their sound to such a unique level of awesomeness*.
Secondly there was the elephant in the room (specifically on the drums), by which I mean that anyone and everyone can immediately tell that Meg White possesses only a tiny fraction of the musical skill that flows freely from guitarist Jack White. In fact, she sounds like she just started playing last week. Or ten minutes ago. And then, again, I was left to argue within myself whether this truism detracted from their amazing sound or was in fact responsible for it.
This point slides easily into the next: the band’s perfect rock staple signature tune Seven Nation Army (a phrase that came from a young Jack White’s mishearing of “Salvation Army”), an infectious single-string riff of ubiquitousness if there ever was one. And while the guitar line is so perfect, so simple as to rival Smoke On the Water amongst non-guitar players playing guitar in the final analysis it’s the even simpler, even perfecter kick drum that truly drives the song over the cliff of magnificence.
And while Seven Nation Army was the only song in the setlist that I recognized, by the time it came around it was just another in a long string of remarkably crafted blistering pop songs.
Though as good as it was I’m sure it would have benefited from a cool bass line.
*Whenever I think “this band needs a bass player” I hear the ten thousand times someone came up to me at a nero show and said, “this band needs a vocalist.” Half the time I would explain that not having a singer made the band unique, the other half of the time I would pretend that this was the first time anyone had ever made this observation, and would promise to mention this brilliant idea to the guys at setbreak.