CINCINNATI — If there was a top-5 list of things rock bands don’t normally do during shows, it might look something like this:
1) Play for 40 minutes, then leave the stage and come back for an encore even longer than the first set.
2) Dress the lead singer in a toreador suit, white makeup and Zorro hat.
3) Let the vocally challenged drummer sing snippets of the same warbly tune three times during the show — then let her take center stage for yet another song.
4) Perform a song with just marimba and maracas, and another with mandolin and tambourine.
5) Tell a rambling five-minute story about a dream you had that involves bullies on a city bus helping themselves to more than their share of your supersized cherry danish, which later re-materializes and multiplies into several danishes after some punks on the street agree to share.
6) And a bonus item: Don’t play “the hit.”
The White Stripes did all those things Monday night at Cincinnati’s ornate Music Hall, and for nearly two hours they killed, because Jack White knows the first true rule of rock: It’s all about what the guy with the microphone wants.
Storming onto the stage in his white bullfighter outfit, Jack tore into “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” without so much as a “Good evening” as the giant shadow of Meg’s right arm reached all the way up to the second, mostly-empty, balcony.
As she would two more times during the show, Meg then stepped behind her red kettle drums to sing a snippet of “Passive Manipulation,” from the group’s latest album, Get Behind Me Satan (see “White Stripes Album Preview: Confounding Satan Both Loud And Subtle” ).
She needed the downtime: Jack did his best all night to play everything at double time, amping up the album’s first single, “Blue Orchid,” to lightning speed as Meg banged on her drums with a robotic, metronome-like cadence.
While Jack appeared to be shouting out the setlist off the cuff, there are certain things you can rely on during a 2005 White Stripes show: The roadies will be dressed in crisp black suits and hats; Meg’s drums will be turned sideways to face Jack; and Jack will pinwheel across the stage all night, jumping from guitar to piano, mandolin, keyboard and (finally) marimba at will. All of which makes you forget that there are just two people making all that noise.
Everything, it seems, is left to chance, which might explain why Jack played all of the searing blues number “Ball and Biscuit” with an errant microphone dangling over the front of his guitar before a roadie removed it two songs later. And whether he was playing thoughtful piano on “Truth Doesn’t Make a Noise” or shouting out Son House’s “Death Letter” with no mic, Jack called the shots — one of which was aimed at Meg.
During a ragged piano-and-drums take on current single “My Doorbell,” Jack looked over his shoulder at Meg and said “C’mon Meg!” after her drumming went a bit wobbly. He’d seemingly forgiven the woman he introduced as his “big sister” moments later — she’s actually his ex-wife, for anyone who doesn’t know — while the audience took up the “1, 2, 3, 4″ chorus of a blazing “Hotel Yorba” as if it were a boozy soccer chant.
And then, just like that, they said “thank you” and left the stage in a squall of feedback. Of course, they returned minutes later for a 45-minute first encore (or second set?) that opened with a screaming “Hardest Button to Button,” the Led Zeppelin crunch of “Instinct Blues,” Meg’s shaky rendition of “In the Cold, Cold Night” and that bizarre monologue about multiplying danishes.
Halfway through “I Think I Smell a Rat,” Jack abruptly laid down his guitar and picked up a mandolin to play the country romp “Little Ghost,” with Meg accompanying him on kick drum and tambourine. Though they rarely play with guest musicians, the pair brought out their pal Johnny Walker of the Soledad Brothers for a dueling slide-guitar showdown on a song from the White Stripes’ self-titled 1999 debut, “I Fought Piranhas.”
Meg tossed a hand towel over her snare drum to create a unique muffled sound during “We’re Going to be Friends” and after an electrifying “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” the second set crashed to a close.
Jack came out to do a solo ragtime piano version of “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)” and, despite recording many of the songs on Satan using marimba, he didn’t step behind his candy-striped set until the night’s penultimate song, “The Nurse.”
Though his self-taught marimba skills were impressive, Jack laid his squealing guitar down at center stage and seemingly used a foot pedal to trigger the song’s intermittent blasts of distortion. By the time the pair were holding hands awkwardly at center stage after the show-closing “Seven Nation Army” most fans were too jacked up to realize they never heard the breakthrough hit “Fell in Love With a Girl.” But no one — OK, except for that guy who screamed “What about ‘Fell in Love with a f—ing Girl’?!” — seemed to mind.
Cincinnati’s own Greenhornes, longtime FOJs (friends of Jack), opened the show with a half-hour blitz of Nuggets-worthy, paisley-spattered rock that solicited a symphony-worthy standing O from the crowd. From their retro rocking “Pattern Skies,” to extended jams on the Yardbirds’ “Lost Women” and a distortion-dripping cover of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy,” the trio expertly set the stage for the Stripes’ blues-inspired mayhem.
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports .