It's just past midnight and the capacity crowd at the El Rey Theatre is ecstatic as the White Stripes head into the final encore of a series of stirring shows around town. I've seen three of them and am kicking myself for missing the fourth. This Detroit duo plays rock 'n' roll as it was meant to be: urgent, witty, sensual, inspiring and defiant.
Jack White, the Stripes' singer-guitarist who combines the primal power of the Delta blues with a solid sense of songwriting craft and rock dynamics, is ripping through a song with such explosive force that he could fill in for both Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in a Led Zeppelin concert.
The 26-year-old musician follows with a gentle love song whose lyrics convey a nursery rhyme innocence. The audience, which knows the song from the Stripes' last album, sings along with every word.
As the set ends, I realize it's the best time I've had in a club since ... well, a week earlier when the Hives played at the Roxy.
Despite a temperature in the packed club hot enough to pop corn, the Hives' music was as refreshing as two episodes of "The Osbournes." The Swedish quintet's high-spirited music celebrates the rawness and economy of classic garage rock and punk, and the band backs it with a wonderfully entertaining persona.
"People have called me smug," lead singer Howlin' Pelle Almqvist declares on stage. "But we just believe in giving credit where credit is due."
That was the most fun I'd had at a show since ... a month earlier when the Mars Volta put on a galvanizing performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, or maybe three weeks before that when a band by the burdensome name of ... And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Dead mixed a punk-aligned independence and traditional rock sensibilities in a way that would have made the group an ally of the Clash in the '70s or Nirvana in the '90s.
Sense a pattern here?
More than any time since the arrival of Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails and the Smashing Pumpkins a decade ago, mainstream rock has a renewed passion and creativity.
This flurry of exciting new guitar-driven bands--which also includes such groups as the Strokes from New York, the Vines from Australia and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club from Los Angeles--is too new and the musical styles too diverse for the slogan-happy rock world to even give it a name.
Don't confuse these new outfits with emo (the post-punk sensitivity of such groups as Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional) or electroclash (electro pop-punk). Besides music that is smart and soulful, the chief link between the Stripes, Hives, et al is their fierce independence.
No one is bold enough to claim this wave of bands is the Next Big Thing commercially. Their mere presence, however, is a welcome break from the dreary state of mainstream U.S. rock of the late '90s. If these bands start picking up the same kind of enthusiastic response across the country they are now getting on the coasts with their compact, tuneful music, they could reshape the rock landscape.
Gloomy record company executives complain publicly about downloading, piracy and competition from video games as reasons record sales are down 10% this year. But they fret privately about the staleness of today's music.
"I think there is absolutely something exciting going on," says Jimmy Iovine, co-founder of Interscope Records, home of Eminem, U2 and Nine Inch Nails. "These young musicians are not shying away from the showmanship of rock music. They are extraordinarily exciting live and pushing as hard as they can."
Industry taste makers, including MTV and radio station KROQ-FM (106.7) in Los Angeles, are also keeping a close eye on the progress of the Hives, the Stripes and the Strokes to see if they should add more of this new energy to their playlists. A few mainstream pop stations have even begun playing the Hives' wonderfully raw, energetic single, "Hate to Say I Told You So."
The Strokes' album, "Is This It," has gone gold (600,000 copies) and the Stripes' "White Blood Cells" is approaching 300,000 sold. In what could be a coming-out party for this welcome new energy and imagination, the Strokes and Stripes will play the 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall in New York in August. The Stripes' four sold-out L.A. area shows drew 3,200 fans.
These bands--independent and demanding--may not just change the tone of pop music, but may also alter the way record companies do business. Fearful of being tied up for seven years or more through standard industry contracts, the Stripes and the Hives each entered into limited deals that give them their freedom, if they choose to exercise it, after just one more album.