“When You’re Looking At Me, You’re Looking At Country,” Loretta Lynn sang to the people here, as she has in places much simpler than this, and in places even slicker, and with crowds both more and less interested in what she sang and how she sang it than this one was — or possibly could have been.
She was quite entertaining.
Since the evening’s opening act had been one of the so-called post-modern and precious sort of alt.country bands and was named Blanche, some, you could hear, were expecting Loretta Lynn to be another band of similar stripe.
Lynn performed her now-typical set of under an hour, running through the most familiar hits, punching at the air with her microphone, accepting the applause for the start of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (the one the crowd knew, since it had been a movie), and, for the most part, staying just enough involved with a song and just enough distanced from it to go through these motions once again, and keep on doing so.
Yet when she turned to “Here I Am Again,” the one about being really be glad to be back doing this after some time off, she was utterly truthful, and compelling, and moving. She was glad to be here.
She wore a white wedding-style Loretta Lynn gown. At 69, she has long since come to understand that a lot of show business is about keeping up appearances. When she was done, a 14-year-old girl who’d occasionally even been listening turned to me and said, “She’s very pretty. But, tell me — who is she?” (She’d later share moments of the Stripes’ set with friends via her cell phone.)
Jack White had clearly worried about the reception the legend would receive before his neo-garage band’s fans, and thus had stepped out before she began to pave the way. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he’d declared, “the greatest female singer-songwriter of the 20th century!”
He apparently believes that, or something much like it. And perhaps he finds some connection between Loretta’s retold-after-widowhood tale of her marriage and the Stripes “I’m her ex-husband/her brother/her ex-husband” game.
But the White Stripes’ connection to country music, beyond simple, straight-ahead lyrics, has been tenuous at best — an album dedicated to Loretta (for reasons never stated), a recorded version of her song “Rated X”, and a cover of Dolly’s “Jolene”, too — but they’ve been much more about bringing blues, The Other White Meat, back into roots-rock and having it accepted (a public service) than about taking some new alt.country turn.
So what, you had to wonder, was this all about?
Lynn, in the grand country music tradition of making friends where they show up and saying “yes” to opportunity, even while likely taking part in the joke aspect of being here, announced she was excited to be working with her “idols, the White Stripes.”
At the end of her set, Jack joined her for duets on “Fist City” and “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man”. He did a serviceable job, too — singing in a sort of Jerry Reed bluesy country mode, and more straightforwardly than might have been expected for a guy who stated in his best utterly assumed southern accent, dripping with chivalrous Colonel Beauregarde cartoon courtesy, “Miss Loretta, you ah the most gorgeous thing evuh t’come out of the south!”
For a band that was wary about what big-hall rock stardom would do to their music an album ago, the Stripes themselves offered an increasingly Led Zep-like arena blues rock storm. If Jack is wary of rock stars, a look in the mirror would show that one’s on the way, and there’s no pill to prevent it.
Jack’s superstar guitar turns (very, very sly and noisy superstar guitar turns) and vocals combined Page and Plant, while Meg offered the effective (and already much-repeated) interactive drama between the two of them that the act is built on, and whatever rather limited drumming she could provide.
Jack’s more and more subtle and adept song lyrics, in the simple roots traditions, could hardly be heard in this context — but fans sang along with the new numbers and hits, for just under an hour. On the hard blues numbers especially, there were whiffs of genuine intensity.
The Stripes were dressed as what they’ve described as “dead country stars,” to protest, they said, the rise of non-Loretta-like insincerity in country music. With the white pancake makeup and red cowboy and white twang belle suits, they in fact looked like the long-lost siblings of Michael Jackson.
Beyond layers of show business and philosophical paraphernalia — assumed for branding, or self-protection, or appearance, or the appearance of needing self-protection; and learned over time by the lady and adopted early on by the duo — both the Stripes and Loretta transcended their homemade wall of shtick in moments of unbridled and unmitigated passion, well-delivered, that bubbled up and took you by surprise.
It was good.
For the finale, Loretta joined Jack and Meg onstage, now in matching fire marshal red gear herself. There are no reports that she had read essays on stripping down to minimalist colors according to the philosophies of Dutch architects before changing clothes.
She joined the Stripes in an utterly screaming punk rip, their style, at “Rated X”, a crowd-pleasing capper to a very entertaining, fast-moving, highly professional show, far removed from both that Detroit garage and Hickory Holler. Yes, that’s right — Loretta can sing punk.
After this show, and their visit to her house for dinner, and backstage cavorting and clowning with Loretta that seemed entirely comfortable, Jack and Meg White have all the more reason to locate the no-nonsense power of Loretta Lynn in her straightforward songwriting, and build on it. And maybe, after this encounter, they’ll even allow themselves simply to be the rock stars they are — sincerely showbiz.