all words: Jeb Gavin
all photos: Kevin Carroll
The Black Keys show this past Friday night was a good example of what is now expected of an arena rock show. Gone are the days of Heavy Metal Parking Lot (at least within Chinatown). Parents are no longer relegated to the cheap seats, or stuck outside in idling cars. Now they are as excited as their progeny to see the band play. Underage drinking and the use of dirt weed is all but unnoticeable (making it blatantly apparent when many 20-something young professionals chose to regress and become amped up, drunken children.) Encores are expected, and people are back to using their lighters instead of cell phones, though it didn’t seem like the crowd knew why they had lighters in the first place. No, this Verizon Center concert was very much an exemplar the new norm for rock bands in a big venue.
The show itself was a good one, though not the best performance I have seen from the Keys, nor from their opening act the Arctic Monkeys. The Monkeys in particular had a rough go of it. Ten years removed from their days of piss and vinegar bubbling under Sheffield baby fat, the band looked nearly middle-aged at a distance.
Their playing hasn’t suffered, but with less than half the audience in attendance, their set reminded me of an aging act playing an end of semester mixer at some small college. An hour of frantic post-punk garage rock later, they wandered off stage to cheers from a few loyal fans, but a general sense of apathy otherwise.
In contrast, the Black Keys took the stage with a spring in their step and some measure of determination. Guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Pat Carney were front and center on the stage, with their keyboardist and bassist on a riser directly behind them as if to say, “We are the Black Keys, and the guys behind us chip in from time to time.” Having seen the band play in smaller clubs with and without backing musicians, I was used to their aggressive sound of supercharged blues rock ricocheting around the room like tub of ballistic super balls.
I feared the sound might bleed out in such a large venue (as was the case at Merriweather Post Pavilion during last summer’s Virgin Mobile FreeFest). Turns out, I’m a worrier and their sound guy isn’t an idiot. The filling-rattling volume of the band translated just fine, aided in no small part by a sold out crowd screaming along to every note.
My one real problem with the sound itself came from the drums. The band opened with a series of tracks from their more recent albums, necessitating the bass and organ and at times a second guitar. This was fine and expected. But for the first few songs, it seemed the drums were muted- no longer as vibrant as without the additional instruments. It wasn’t until Dan and Pat excused their help and tore through some of their earlier work that I heard Pat’s drums pop back up in the mix.
I realized the drums aren’t muted on their newer songs; they’re just no longer the only counterpoint to a caterwauling guitar. The bass in particular fills in cracks and polishes the sound, which bums me out because the abrasiveness of hearing two men beat the ever-loving shit out of a guitar and drum kit is one reason I love the Black Keys’ take on blues rock.
That’s not to say the additional instruments were completely detrimental. Newer songs like the disco ball-lit “Everlasting Light” would have suffered if not for the backup, and the closer “I Got Mine” could’ve become a bloated mess if played by more than the original lineup. But some songs, notably “Ten Cent Pistol”, benefitted from some tasty organ work transforming the electrified Delta blues stomp into a swampy, funky grind.
This is the difficulty of being a small band now playing big shows, especially considering the new expectations of an arena show. You can’t forsake old fans by playing the new stuff exclusively, nor alienate newer fans by plowing through the back catalog. You can’t add visual effects that might distract from the music, but you have to increase the performance aspect relative to the size of the new stage. You hedge your bets to play to a larger audience, and walk a fine line trying to please everyone. I doubt anyone went away disappointed by this show, but no one seemed blown away either. Well, except maybe the kids at their first big concert.