The White Stripes’ ‘Peel Sessions’: why I’ll participate in Record Store Day for once

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On April 16, Third Man Records will release the White Stripes’ 2001 Peel Sessions as part of Record Store Day. This will be the first time my favourite recording by my favourite band of the past 15 years gets an official release.

I’ve never participated in RSD, apart from seeing free in-store shows. My reasons are plentiful and echo those that crop up in greater abundance every year. But the White Stripes’ Peel Sessions will be the first thing I (try to) buy on RSD.

Peel Sessions combines two live sets. The first 14 tracks were recorded at BBC’s Maida Vale Studios at the end of July in 2001. The rest of the 27 tracks were recorded at Kentish Town Forum a month-and-a-half earlier, also in London. I only listen to the Maida Vale set, so this post only refers to them. But in 38 packed minutes, they say everything that needs to be said about the White Stripes. 

Peel Sessions not only captured the band just as they propelled into the mainstream (their breakthrough third album White Blood Cells came out right in the middle of the two sessions, at the beginning of that July); Peel Sessions also captured the band at their rawest, their tinniest, and their most stripped. One of the recording’s greatest qualities is that it’s largely devoid of crowd noise, except applause between songs. The White Stripes’ unique live tones blister with full force, completely undistilled.

Jack is also at his most ferocious without overindulging on guitar. He can slam out nine-minute-long versions of “Death Letter” and “Astro”, or string them and others together as medleys with heaps of crushing feedback, slide guitar acrobatics, and other feats of pedal-fed virtuosity. But even solo-heavy juggernauts like those songs are efficiently compact on Peel Sessions.  

For many White Stripes fans like me, Peel Sessions was also the first time they encountered non-album songs including live staple “Jolene”, usual set-closer Bo Weevil”, “Jack the Ripper” (which the band inserts into almost any high-speed tear), and “Baby Blue”. Hearing those songs prompted curiosity about their provenances, encouraged us to dig for more information about them in the virtual record bins of Google (Wikipedia had only launched half-a-year earlier and had yet to explode as the internet’s leading reference tool), and ultimately led us to discovering artists ranging from pop culture icons like Dolly Parton to obscurer (or even largely forgotten) roots bluesmen like Leadbelly.

Peel Sessions was a gateway into the White Stripes’ expansive catalogue of historically steeped cover songs.

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The White Stripes were renowned for their endless live variations of everything from their best known hits to their least known rarities. But Peel Sessions contains some of my favourite versions of any White Stripes song. When I sing their lyrics or hum their tunes, I default to the alternate melodies and riffs contained on this recording. Often, when I listen to other live sessions, I expect notes, feedback, and banter to fall in all the incorrect places because the Peel versions are the ones that are embedded in my brain, even more so than the album originals. 

Third Man Records’ endless stream of subscription-only Vault exclusives has long worn thin on me, but Peel Sessions breaks the trend of non-commemorative live White Stripes releases – must-haves only for the most die-hard collectors – and flippers.

There are several White Stripes live releases that are worthy of owning if only because they mark significant points in the band’s history: Under Blackpool Lights (their first live release and first DVD), Under Great White Northern Lights (drawn from shows all throughout their immense 2007 cross-Canada tour that even reached all three Territories), Live Under the Lights of the Rising Sun (their first shows outside of America), Live at the Gold Dollar (their first show ever), and Under Moorhead Lights All Fargo Night (their last show ever). If there is one more session to own alongside these, Peel Sessions is it. Peel Sessions is why you’ll likely find me in line outside of Red Cat or Neptoon Records on the morning of April 16.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu

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