(Pictured above [L-R]: The White Stripes' Meg and Jack White. Photos by Jon Sumber.)
In the shadow of Coney Island's iconic Parachute Drop, which hovered over the right field fence of KeySpan Park, the White Stripes—what's the word?— rocked. Against all odds, Jack and Meg White filled the minor-league baseball stadium with a deep sense of intimacy, solving a riddle that has plagued rock bands for generations, including opening act The Shins. On record, anyway, the Albuquerque outfit is far snugger than the Stripes, and with work (and luck), will be headlining similar venues on their own in a few years. But the fragile beauty of their perfect songs like "Kissing the Lipless" and "So Says I" eluded them by the Brooklyn seaside.
What made the Stripes' achievement so impressive was its scale. Their stage set—replete with red kettle drums, a peppermint-swirled trap kit, spray-painted white palm fronds (in white pots) and pearly white footlights—was tended to by bowler-capped/black-suited/red-tied roadies. White himself entered in a getup that resembled a cross between Slash and Zorro and, with a manic intensity, delivered the crushing hooks that already sounded like arena rock when the Stripes could barely fill bars. But it remained cozy.
Opening with a medley that concluded with "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" and the first of two renditions of the Meg-sung "Passive Manipulation," the former Jack Gillis careened about the stage. A kinetic frontman, White's talents for holding the crowd were many, from surreal vocal vibrato (a cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene") to ice-pick guitar squalls ("Black Math"), to his forays on a variety of instruments (marimba on "The Nurse," mandolin on "Little Ghost") to haughty come-ons ("you only started clapping when you saw me!" he laughed, coming out for the encore, and departing again until the crowd cheered for real).
As always, "big sister" (and former wife) Meg, acted as a perfect foil. Like Ringo Starr's presence in The Beatles, the strength of Meg's character far outweighs her technical skills. In fact, it is precisely her musical reserve (and occasional sly smiles) that permit White his hyperactivity. And he was hyper, orchestrating the band's hour-long set with a breathlessness that was occasionally an overwhelming blur, saved only by his songwriting. Like Bob Dylan in his speed-freak prime, White's compositions—like the kick-drum thump of "The Hardest Button to Button" and the faux-innocent summer jamming of "My Doorbell"—meld ancient blues weirdness to striking modernity. It was a combination that worked perfectly in the stadium's confines.
White's breadth has been expanding of late, and nowhere was this better demonstrated than the variety-show atmosphere of the duo's extended encore. Opening with the solo piano ballad "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet)" (evidence that White might have a Blood on the Tracks in him), the two touched on charming folk ("We're Gonna Be Friends"), bluegrass ("Little Ghost"), noir-balladry ("Cold, Cold Night"), lusting popcraft ("Seven Nation Army") and country-blues ("Boll Weevil").
It's an odd bargain to fill big rooms with music carved from indie rock's intimate formula, and The White Stripes have made it (more or less) without compromise. With Jack frequently singing from a microphone placed next to the drums, a foot from Meg's face, the pair shared conspiratorial glances, ensconced in the red-and-white fantasyland of which they once dreamt. In these moments, the crowd could only watch and sing along.