all photos: Chris Svetlik
all words: Phil Runco
Surfing through YouTube clips of The Black Keys’ songs, I came across a comment from someone named Clobberrella. Clobberrella had just discovered the Akron, Ohio band’s “Thickfreakness.” “I can’t stop listening to this,” (s)he wrote. “I’ve been waiting to hear this kind of soulful rocky blues for ages and this scratches the itch like nothing else.”
I would venture to say that among The Black Keys’ fans, this sort of guttural reaction is probably not an uncommon thing. Despite the simplicity of the duo’s drums-and-guitar set-up, not a whole lot of bands sound like The Black Keys.
Dan Auerbach’s guitar is filthy and swaggers all over the place. His voice sounds aged far beyond his years. Patrick Carney’s drumming is tight and steady with minimal pomp. Their music is steeped in the history of blues and rock and roll without being overly reverential.
All of which is a longwinded way of saying we’re talking about some badass stuff. And people – specifically dudes – will always have a place in their hearts for something badass.
That badass quality is one that Auerbach and Carney have cultivated fastidiously over nine releases. Slight tweaks aside, The Black Keys haven’t altered the fundamentals of its aesthetic much since debuting with 2002’s The Big Come Up. Auerbach and Carney’s singularity of sound goes a long way toward explaining the broad popularity of the band; a band that can sell out DAR Constitution Hall on a Monday without a marquee song to its name.
Whether first exposed to The Black Keys as the soundtrack to an HBO drama or in the background of an American Express commercial or, as in the case of Clobberrella, through a YouTube clip of a seven year-old song, someone is going get an accurate representation of the band’s M.O. There isn’t a best point of entry with this band: nearly everything is consistently pretty good, and just as uniformly, it is a variation on the same riff.
On Monday that point of entry was, appropriately enough, “Thichfreakness.” The duo emerged in darkness before lacing into the sludgy barnburner. Auerbach dressed appropriately anachronistic, his Western flannel tucked firmly into his jeans and its sleeves rolled neatly up in a way that reflected a sturdy professionalism. “Let’s keep it moving,” he said on occasion between songs – to Carney or the crowd, it wasn’t clear to whom he was speaking.
The band charted a relentless course early. The guitar heroics of “Girl Is on My Mind” led into the anthemic “10 A.M. Automatic” and a fortified “The Breaks.” Rubber Factory’s “Stack Shot Billy” came as a welcome reprise, allowing Carney to loosen up rhythmically and putting Auerbach’s God-given weathered tenor on display.
Such pauses in unadulterated jamming were few and far between. The mellower side of the band – best heard on the country blues of “The Lengths”, the tender shuffle of “Act Nice and Gentle” or anything from the Chulahoma EP – was largely ignored on the night. Leading off the encore, “Too Afraid to Love You” was one exception. The song benefitted from a richer palette courtesy of bass and a prominent harpsichord line. The two accompanying Auerbach and Carney – “Nick and Leon” – sat in for most of the set’s second half, when the band turned its attention to this year’s Brothers.
The songs from Brothers – particularly “Howlin’ for You”, “Tighten Up”, and “Everlasting Light” – often began interestingly, with a certain subdued but propulsive energy, yet The Black Keys willingness to just coast on those vibes rather take the arrangements elsewhere resulted in blunted impressions. In other words, while they’re certainly worthwhile entries in The Black Keys catalogue, they lacked real dynamism or personality.
For the most part, the additional instrumentation did little to boost the performance: even as a four piece, The Black Keys still sound like The Black Keys. As such, a fatigue set in over the course of the night. The uniformity of sound that makes The Black Keys such a consistent listen does them little favors over a twenty-one song set. Even the most badass of sounds has its limits.
And while this most likely goes without saying, the venue did the band no favors. While I respect the sanctity of the space I received my high school diploma in, if I’m going to drop in on a glorified jam session, I’d like to do it beer in hand. Other members of crowd seemed to take the college football pregame approach to this problem, saturating themselves thoroughly in the lobby before the headliners took stage. The fruits of their labor were enjoyed by all: fierce air drumming; heads shaking in disbelief of the righteousness of the guitar slaying; and faces contorting as if to suggest oh-my-god-this-is-so-good-it-is-literally-causing-me-physical-pain-right-now.
The enthusiasm of the less inebriated members was less transparent. On one hand, the feedback from the crowd was rattling. Even changes of tempo warranted adoration. On the other hand, as I looked around, I saw bodies firmly planted and faces glazed over.
Maybe the varied responses are a reflection a band’s increasing cultural ubiquity and accordingly wide draw. I have to believe that for a lot of the audience, this was the first time hearing twenty-one of The Black Keys songs. But one thing is for certain, however little audience members had heard, they couldn’t accuse The Black Keys of false advertising.
The Morning Benders opened the night. The band’s debut Big Echo boasts some nice moments, but they often stem from Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear’s remarkable production and less from the actual songs. Performing on Monday, it proved it could convincingly pull of some of that album’s ambience, or at least put on a solid Grizzly Bear impression.
“Hand Me Downs” and b-side “Go Grab a Stranger” benefited from the venue’s massive, expensive sound system. The songs most closely appropriated the touchstones of the band’s mentor’s: lumbering guitar, waves of reverb, multi-part harmonies. The more conventional song structure of “All Day Daylight” didn’t fare nearly as well.
The Morning Benders made the interesting choice of slowing down its two biggest pop songs to varied success. “Cold War (Nice Clean Fights)” was stripped of its breeziness; what was once a little ditty becoming a more deliberate, lurching, and better tune. Closer “Excuses”, however, gained little from its slower pace. Where on record the song has a sweeping momentum about it, it sounded small and stilted live.
Additionally, as the set went along, and band leader Christopher Chu continued awkwardly attempting to engage the audience, it became apparent what nerds we were dealing with. If a tour with the Black Keys can’t fix that, I don’t know what can.