The black, red and white stage set accented with 11 chalk-white potted palm fronds may have been elaborate, but the music was unrelentingly straight forward. At Merriweather Post Pavilion on Tuesday night, the White Stripes, the powerful duo of Meg and Jack White, delivered a show crammed with musical thrills. Rock bands with three times the members and more spectacular backdrops seldom perform with such uncut, visceral energy.
The show, which stretched for about 90 minutes, kicked off with a high-octane version of "Blue Orchid," the stellar first single from the Stripes' latest album, the brilliantly weird Get Behind Me Satan. Multi-instrumentalist Jack, the duo's chief songwriter and frontman, only addressed the packed house once. He introduced the ever-shy, drummer-percussionist Meg as his "big sister," a not-so-inside joke since it's well known that she's really his ex-wife.
After the quick greeting, it was down to business. As Meg pounded the skins (it's amazing that so much force comes from such a sliver of a woman), Jack switched from acoustic to electric guitar, often before a song was done. If his chops weren't so tight, all that instrument switching would have seemed a bit showy and pretentious. But the guy is a fine, aggressive musician who sometimes sang, played the guitar and the piano all at once.
The Stripes never strayed too far from the punk-blues-rock aesthetic that informs its minimalist style. The pacing was frantic; there was never a moment without music. Solid grooves frayed, crested, then blazed toward a ferocious climax. The arrangements braided disparate elements of Led Zeppelin, Muddy Waters, the Kinks and Hank Williams. In between their own songs, the Stripes managed to fit in reimagined covers. Jack and Meg shared vocals on Loretta Lynn's "Rated X," and Jack heightened the torturous element of Dionne Warwick's "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" with manic electric guitar chords that echoed his idiosyncratic wailing.
Other highlights included the well-written selections from the new album: "My Doorbell" was given a funkier, bouncier groove, and Jack spiced "The Nurse" with cool marimba. For a minute, you wondered if there's an instrument this dude can't play.
Toward the end of the show, things relaxed a little with the affecting, almost precious "We're Going to Be Friends," during which the crowd clapped and sang along. But being the White Stripes, the concert wasn't without a curious moment or two.
The duo performed one of Dolly Parton's great tunes, "Jolene." Although the song is from the perspective of a woman, Jack sang it without changing the gender. He was convincing nonetheless as he screamed: "Jolene, Jolene, Jolene/I'm begging of you/Please don't take my man."