They play these days to a slightly older and tidier-looking crowd, so the White Stripes have, I guess, officially 'made it'. They even showed up (weirdly) on highbrow BBC Radio 4. Laurels hover dangerously nearby, begging to be rested on, but at Manchester's packed-to-capacity Apollo, the Stripes manage to pull it out of the bag in gorgeous style because they give you what you didn't even know you wanted.
Every gig on this tour must feel like a homecoming, the crowd treat the band exactly like heroes (flailing noisebag support The Go are forgotten in precisely one second) and every nuance of look and movement between the two is taken to be ripe with meaning. The chemistry, whatever it might be, between these pale, colour-coded rock pixies is at least as important as their lengthy set-list and Jack's ability to make one guitar sound like three. Aside from their glaring Country influences, punked and postmodernised to something beyond alt.country, it's as difficult as it's ever been to gauge where the White Stripes come from musically. Jon Spencer and the Pixies are perhaps the only tentatively recognisable influences to surface more than once, but any number of comparisons can't quite cover the complicated scope of the noises that these two make.
The gig, bookended with nothing short of euphoric appreciation, is crowned somewhere in the melee by the guttingly marvellous new single "Seven Nation Army", where Meg, who ought to have biceps like beach-balls, spatters her kit with spectacular out-of-kilter rhythm. (By the time another single hits the shelves, Elephant will be a bona fide classic.) "Jolene", a highlight, is boomed across the auditorium like slow sexy funeral funk-rock, Jack mournfully earnest and lost in the potential homo-gymnastics of the lyrics. "I'm beggin' honey, please don't take my man", he croons desperately. When it arrives, as an a cappella version on which they both sing, 'Hotel Yorba' ranks as joyfully high as "Last Nite", "Animal Nitrate" or "Sit Down" as 'the song you are most there to hear' and it pretty much floors the crowd with love. This music is perfect live, the set runs song into song, breaks are few and the band eventually overrun their curfew, leaving us with an encore which is a spoken farewell and goodnight.
A couple of serious alcohol casualties in the crowd testify to the fact their gigs always feel like great big parties, complete with crying on the stairs. The Stripes are forging creatively ahead on exciting new ground, without the momentum of the skinny-tie/Parallel Lines scene behind them to keep them company. Whatever they need to do, they're doing it alone. They are Rock. They are an island.