Rock and Roll’s Dynamic Duo

April 2, 2010, 12:13 a.m.

“I bet you five you’re not alive if you don’t know his name.” The phrase, lifted from Orson Welles’ legendary “Citizen Kane” and incorporated into “White Blood Cells” standout “The Union Forever,” sums up a good part of the White Stripes’ history. Deliberately old-fashioned, the supposedly brother/sister but in reality ex-husband/wife duo rose to prominence via the massive NME hype machine as candidates (along with The Strokes and The Hives, among others) for the perennial underachiever moniker “Saviors of RAWK n’ roll.” But AC/DC is right (as always): rock and roll ain’t gonna die. As Jack reminds us during the DVD documentary portion of “Under Great Northern Lights,” when done right, you don’t play rock n’ roll, it plays you. This is the fundamental tenant of their live shows. No set lists. No extra musicians. As Meg explains to a confused trucker who has never heard of them, “We’re a rock band. There’s only two of us, but we make a lot of noise.”

Rock and Roll's Dynamic DuoConfusingly, “Under Great Northern Lights” is the title of both a tour DVD and a live CD. Both are culled from their 2007 Canadian tour, where they celebrated their 10th anniversary as a band by playing every territory and province of the country. The tour marked an important turning point for the band, as they canceled their tour of the U.S. that year as a result of Meg’s anxiety, and haven’t toured since.

This is a damn shame, because what a mighty fine live band they are. The DVD is strictly better than the CD, and not just for the reasons you’d expect. A thoroughly engrossing and even touching viewing experience, the movie not only catches the tremendous energy of their live shows, but reaffirms Jack’s place as a full-of-shit but full-blooded, mesmerizing rock star. I watched it with my mother, who doesn’t like loud music. She put down her crossword puzzle five minutes in to tell me “he sure can play the guitar.” Afterwards, she asked me why I hadn’t played her this music before. I told her I had. Many, many times.

The DVD can be divided into three parts, short one to three minute concert clips, interviews and spontaneous “B-Side” concerts. It’s these unscheduled intimate performances that are most touching, the true heart of the movie. It’s an intimate performance of the 18th century ballad “Black Jack Davey” in the town square of Whitehorse, Yukon. Population: 20,000. It’s singing “The Wheels On the Bus” with 10 year-old kids. It’s sharing stories and songs with elderly Eskimo leaders and eating raw caribou. Other DVD-only highlights include “Apple Blossom,” “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart” and Meg’s turn on the vocal “Cold Cold Night” played at YMCAs, bowling alleys and school rooms throughout Canada.

The CD track list, on the other hand, favors pure unrelenting fury. It’s a dark, heavy, thunderous album. If the DVD is for everybody, the CD should appeal to your friend that doesn’t think there’s been a decent rock band since Zeppelin. The solos on “Icky Thump,” “Ball and Biscuit” and “Black Math” testify to why Jack is considered the best guitarist of our generation. But the best tracks are when they slow it down and hone in on the intensity in Jack’s voice. Longtime live staple “Jolene” (originally by Dolly Parton) with Jack singing from a scorned female lover’s perspective never fails to slay. The Burt Bacharach-penned “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” comes off equally well, sung with a desperation that can’t be faked. Some album songs that have gotten better live include the “The Union Forever,” “Slowly Turning Into You” and “3000 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues,” all easily outdistancing their studio counterparts.

The set finishes with the always stellar “Seven Nation Army” re-envisioned as a sing along. But while impressive, the CD is lacking the stylistic depth of the typical Stripes album, even managing to destroy one of their best songs by dropping out the trademark guitar riff from “Fell In Love With a Girl.”

If anybody out there still hasn’t heard of them, get the CD if you like it heavy. But make everyone you know watch the DVD.

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