Now would be an easy time to take potshots at the Black Keys. Turn Blue, their big release of the year, was by no means a failure, but the brooding swaths of psychedelia that dominated the album made it a tough sell for their newfound stadium audience. As a former indie band who left the nest to seek their fortune, the Black Keys have seen some of their underground support recede, and though they're on top of the charts at the moment, the mainstream can be fickle.
Caught between their roots and the expectations of the 10,000 people filing into the Target Center to see their set, the Black Keys might've been more vulnerable then ever. But a wise man once said, "You come at the king, you best not miss," and the Keys were still on top Friday night.
Watching the kickoff of the second leg of the Keys' globe-trotting tour, it became apparent that someone in the Akron, Ohio based band's camp must have let it slip that Turn Blue might not be the most ideal record for getting arenas rocking.
The set leaned heavily on crowd-pleasers from 2011's smash hit El Camino and their 2010 breakout Brothers to keep things festive, and it was good choice.
"Run Right Back" and "Next Girl" were heavy enough to jive with the band's currently dark mojo, but not so dire that things got frowny from the outset. With a professionally shrewd sense of timing, the group weaved recent hits like "Nova Baby" and "Gold on the Ceiling" in strategically to keep bandwagon jumpers comfortable.
The latter really anchored the set's first half, buoying the crowd and sounding just massive on the full-bore sound system. While it's still a bit of identity clash to see a band like the Black Keys surrounded by an elaborate light and video rig, the folks in their camp did a great job with the sequencing on that song in particular, highlighting the glammy aspects with gaudy pops of gold and yellow.
One of the most fun aspects about the show was watching the band revisit a pair of tracks from their debut LP The Big Come Up with their full live band in tow. The ragged, Junior Kimbrough-aping punk blues that the band once staked as their turf took on new life with the additional talents of bassist (and accomplished producer/engineer) Richard Swift and utility guy organist John Clement Wood.
"Heavy Soul" remains an all-time Keys classic, complemented mightily by Wood's bubbling Hammond, and the group seemed to have a great deal of fun wringing artfully disjointed pauses out of the rooster strut of "Leavin' Trunk." Singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach seemed to really relish the deep cuts during the set, tearing unexpected amounts of joy out of "Strange Times," an overlooked number from Attack & Release with a napalm bomb for a riff.
Later in the night, the Zepp-worthy lick from "Your Touch" was also great for one of those "check your phone for the song title" moments that are the hallmark of every good deep cut.
Sequencing an interesting set is always a good sign that a band has retained some amount of self-respect, but you wouldn't have to look that closely to tell that the Black Keys are most definitely not jobbing it out up there. Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney pulverize their instruments in ferocious rebuttal to anyone who would consider them soft in their success.
It's one thing to line yourself up a row of tasty solos like Auerbach did during the show Friday night, and another thing entirely to take them out back to throttle them. Auerbach has few peers in his balance of stadium guitar heroics and bluesy dynamic control, and the punky chip he seems to play with over his left shoulder makes the band's more menacing material really stick.
Carney plays with lanky arms on a low slung kit and packs a serious wallop, and the intense, glaring concentration on his face and Buddy Holly glasses seem reminiscent of a young, angry Elvis Costello.[page]
Given their status as platinum selling band, it's remarkable how few canned effects and hubris-induced stage accouterments the Black Keys used during their show. On lusher tracks like "Tighten Up," it would have been so simple to pipe in the song's trademark whistle melody, but nope, there's Auerbach and Swift blowing away like Harpo Marx in perfect harmony.
When songs required an additional hand, Auerbach invited his guitar tech to fill the gap gamely, helping give depth to the washing layers of cinematic melody in the Turn Blue epic "Weight of Love." The sole moment of artifice that stuck out was also so silly it might have been a joke.
The singer's guitar tech nimbly placed a lap steel guitar onstage during new single "Gotta Get Away" just in time for Dan to shred for about 15 seconds' worth of solo, before it was plucked back off for the final chorus. Oh, and they had a giant hypnotist's spiral spinning behind them during the encore. It's an arena show though, that just kind of comes with the territory.
What's fun about the Black Keys is that they're technically an arena rock band now, and they might just be the best arena rock band still operating. Spiritual and musically they've taken more than a few scraps from the playbooks of '70s guitar giants, but they're no dinosaurs. This is still the band that was forged in the fires of the indie circuit, they just happen to have become ridiculously successful along the way.
So what if their new album's a bit dreary? If a band this committed to things like genuine stagecraft and thoughtful songwriting can get 10,000 butts in 10,000 seats in 2014, that's a sign of hope. So before taking a potshot at the king, think about why you're aiming at him in the first place. There's a whole sea of targets far more worthy.
Dead and Gone
Run Right Back
Same Old Thing
Gold on the Ceiling
Too Afraid to Love You
Howling for You
Girl Like You (Edwyn Collins)
Gotta Get Away
She's Long Gone
Weight of Love
Little Black Submarines
Random Notebook Dump: Closer "Little Black Submarines" started with a spare and riveting bit of finger style acoustic from Auerbach. Wouldn't it be cool if they played around with that palette a bit more next time they hit the studio?
Overheard in the Crowd: "They were great, but they were no Led Zeppelin," stated by a woman who was definitely not old enough to have seen the Zepp live.
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