Unfortunately we must take a further break from our regular scheduling as I am swept up in Under Great White Northern Lights mania. The question that this album poses to all White Stripes fans is, how can a single disc be a definitive statement about the band as a live act. As great as their studio output is, The Stripes’ most notorious outlet is their stage show and as a band that boasts a customized experience for each show trying to get it all across in 16 tracks is surely impossible. Luckily UGWNL knows this and doesn’t attempt to emulate an entire concert merely throwing together tour highlights into one great compilation album. The effect is far from jarring and its honest intentions are what make the album so endearing.
The album unsurprisingly starts with the bagpipes intro of Let’s Shake Hands that opened their tenth anniversary show. It might be because I’ve heard this track, as in this specific performance, many times already but this is probably the least revelatory moment of the track list. It’s a great song and a strong rendition but it feels like catch up for casual fans who are unaware of exactly what the White Stripes do as a live act. The excitement really starts with Black Math, where we are forced to ask ourselves the usual question: does this guy really abstain from drugs? After the familiar bashes and fret-burning solo we’re treated with a rearranged ending with stop-start styling.
After it’s more then generous treatment in 2005/2006 we are not treated to much Get Behind Me Satan, which is a shame but the next two tracks certainly make up for it. Little Ghost wasn’t the most likely choice but it contrasts well with the pounding Black Math. If you have seen the film, the intimacy of this song is abundantly clear with Jack and Meg dueting eye to eye for the whole song. Blue Orchid is surprisingly strong, it’s falsetto vocals and rich guitar tones often posing problems live. This performance is a cut above the rest with a wailing guitar crescendo towards the end that climaxes in the signature riff. Considering how rigid the original was it’s interesting to see how it benefits from being treated as a loose structure to improvise with.
Rescued from possible obscurity, The Union Forever wins the award for most gallant underdog choice. An amazing song in any incarnation, Jack fully immerses himself in the more melodramatic moments and faithfully uses the loud-soft dynamics that the song relies on. The eerie organ finish transposes Orson Welles to a 50s B movie with magnificent results. Stranger still is the 3 minute Ball & Biscuit, with the organ based refrain seemingly there just to justify the title. After that it’s brilliant blues medleys and classic squeal solos rendering the song virtually unrecognizable.
Current single Icky Thump receives a strong treatment but it’s a mystery why the first verse is cut out. Like the rest of the album the strength here is to suspend faithfulness to the recording, extending verses to engage the audience and play around with dynamics. Similarly the sing along rendition of I’m Slowly Turning Into You unexpectedly turns into a jazzy swing by the end later to be brought back to a multi-octave crescendo (for both guitar and voice). The album being toured is far from being bombarded upon us but it is certainly well represented and proof that the Stripes are running out of steam on stage or in the studio.
By contrast, live staple Jolene sounds equally strong. You really have to question how necessary the damn thing is, I mean not only was it on Blackpool Lights but it was also a single that received generous airplay. However once you listen to it you remember the genius of the performance, the melodrama is crippling and no other song really gets a more committed vocal performance out of Jack.
300 MPH etc. is the second contender for best underdog song pick. It’s one of the best tracks off Icky Thump and live it’s an entirely different, yet equally good, beast. The guitar subtleties of the album version have been erased and instead Jack relies on weaving his Dylanesque poetry to the audience climaxing in the harrowing screams of the title. This rendition isn’t exactly as grand as the Tenth Anniversary one but I’d rather have both then one. Continuing on in the acoustic vein We’re Going To Be Friends, currently the last song performed by the band, is unconditionally loveable. Its simplicity can never be reworked and as the crowd claps along to the story of childhood love. A tear may come to your eye.
As the greatest hits wear on we get the most redundant moment of the album, I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the performance and it doesn’t disrupt the track list but as it was recorded live, why bother? The most surprising moment is the fun Scottish sing along of Prickly Thorn which unpredictably tops the album version and is real toe tapping nirvana.
If you’re a fan of the bluesy/jazzy slowed down Fell In Love With A Girl then you’ll relish in this intense slow burn of their break out hit. Joss Stone gets beaten in her own game here and never has the spontaneous edge of The White Stripes sounded more genuine, even if there is one jarring hiccup. Similarly When I Hear My Name is reworked to the point of unrecognition, which is good as the very standard blues is so simple it desperately asks for it.
Probably the most shocking aspect of the album is that Seven Nation Army sounds fresh again. What!? That’s right you, heard correctly. Even the most cynical White Stripes fan will find themselves dun-dun-dunning there way through this one. They clearly know the fervour this song creates and they indulge in it to tremendous effect. Stopping to build up suspense and, most excitingly, letting the crowd do the guitar riff as Jack rewrites his greatest hit.
Don’t get Under Great White Northern Lights and then feel all other live material, both released and bootlegged, is superfluous because that is far from the case. What this album does is it gives your record shelf an ambassador from the most important platform of the White Stripes. It was well worth the wait.