Review By Melissa Groth, Photos By Ryan Kelly
In support of their critically acclaimed (but given a solid “meh” by mostly anyone I asked for an opinion before the show) eighth studio album Turn Blue, The Black Keys stopped by the Verizon Center on September 25th for some Thursday night arena rock and roll.
Having had the pleasure of attending the Jack White concert at Merriweather on the 14th; and in light of certain, later sort-of-apologized-for, comments made by Mr. White about The Black Keys owing certain entire careers to The White Stripes earlier this year in the pages of a certain magazine recently disparaged by said Mr. White; AND being a fan of both Jack White and The Black Keys, as well as stylistic experimentation and vinyl angel holograms, I approached The Black Keys concert on a mission to determine who should take home the rock-and-roll crown, who owes what to whom, and who among them all would win in a battle to the death.
Jack White and the cool blue ghostly hues he casts over everything, banshee vocals, and devil-may-care attitude is clearly already dead and so has an unfair advantage in a death match. As for the issues of musical indebtedness and rock-and-roll royalty, the answer ain’t so black and white.
The Black Keys kicked off their hour-and-a-half show with “It’s Up to You Now,” a scorcher of a break-up anthem from their latest album Turn Blue. They kept the meh-sayers contented with a set based mostly in earlier material. “Next Girl” from Brothers lightened things up a bit, followed by “Same Old Thing” off their fifth studio album Attack and Release.
Side-note to acknowledge set design: it was gorgeous. The hypnotic spiral featured on the cover of Turn Blue spun against the backdrop as The Black Keys took the stage, possibly a reference to Patrick Carney’s recently-developed stage fright and hypnosis therapy sessions. Auerbach and Carney were situated together at the front of the stage, with bassist Richard Smith and keyboardist John Wood behind them; all four were in front of a curtain backdrop, which literally dropped at the start of “Same Old Thing” to reveal easily a hundred spotlights. The light show that ensued would have been entertaining on its own. A few more songs in, multiple projections appeared above the spotlights showing distorted live footage of the concert. The lights and filtered projections changed to match the mood of each song played.
The set weighed heavily on El Camino material, with “Run Right Back,” “Dead and Gone,” and “Gold on the Ceiling” one after the other, hitting hard and fast. Auerbach effortlessly tore through skronky guitar riffs, and Carney faced his stage fright in the spotlight. “Leavin’ Trunk” off their first album was a nice surprise, followed by two tracks from Brothers and a cover of Edwyn Collins’ “A Girl Like You.”
The mood seemed to shift after that. The lights went down and a spotlight went up on Auerbach for an extended chunky cord leading into “Money Maker.” Now we’re getting down to business. The distortion in the video projection went away and it was like seeing things clearly for the first time. If the guitar solo wasn’t enough to hypnotize you, the spiral re-appeared projected manifold to make sure the job got done.
After a dozen songs, only one of which was from their new record, they played “Gotta Get Away,” the final song on Turn Blue, positioned that way on the record so as to provide the listener with some hope after the darkness of the other tracks. I imagine it was positioned in the set list to give the audience a deep breath before “She’s Long Gone,” which hit like a bulldozer. The song began with a sleepy guitar solo accompanied by organ before Auerbach hit everyone in the chest repeatedly with guitar riffs. Carney was shining as bright as the light show behind him as he matched Auerbach’s solo note for note. Perhaps a nod to Auerbach’s recent divorce, perhaps not; either way, “She’s Long Gone” was without a doubt the rocking-est of all the songs in the set.
They powered through “Fever,” “Tighten Up,” “Your Touch,” and ended with “Lonely Boy,” to restore everyone’s faith that Turn Blue did not signify a total departure from The Black Keys as we know them.
The audience cheered their hearts out for an encore, but when The Black Keys took the stage again they eased into “Weight of Love” (the beautiful, mostly slow-tempo first track of Turn Blue), and left the audience bewildered. It was in this moment that the departure in style of Turn Blue became most apparent. The energy level of the crowd decreased noticeably. Then came the title track off the latest album. By the time they’d finished, the audience had forgotten their bitterness about The Turned Blue Keys and realized, “Oh yes, this also fucking rocks.” They were rewarded for this realization with “Little Black Submarines,” for which Auerbach played an extended spot-lit acoustic intro and two verses before he saluted as if it were all over and the lights went down. But then the lights came back up, Auerbach had an electric guitar slung across his chest, and Carney was at the ready to give the audience the rock they so badly wanted.
I, however, was not able to answer the question of who owes whose career to whom. It’s apples and oranges now, friends. But I’m gonna go ahead and side with Jack White anyway because he’s bonkers and I’m not about to mess with that.
Cage the Elephant opened. I was a bit lost through the first 2/3 of their set, but felt it ended on a strong note with their more solid tracks, including the two widely known singles “Come a Little Closer” and “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked.” But what was probably most entertaining was front-man Matt Shulz. Shulz is like a demented cheerleader. His mid-air splits, crowd surfing/standing, and surprise shirt-less-ness made the band seem a bit more dynamic; but, unfortunately, a killer front-man does not an original-sounding band make.