In case anyone forgot why they’d showed up at Target Center on Saturday night, Dan Auerbach offered some friendly reminders.
“That’s Patrick on the drums. My name’s Dan. We’re the Black Keys from Akron, Ohio,” he said. Several times.
Maybe it’s a habit the guitarist and vocalist developed back when his garage-rock duo with drummer Patrick Carney was still touring small clubs and lacked name recognition. But the massive arena venue was much different. Behind the band, a large round screen flanked by two lightning bolts played video and live footage with trippy filters.
That largeness seemed to create a barrier, making it hard for the band to connect with the audience beyond the occasional “thank you” between songs. Or maybe the lack of connection was the result of rustiness—the band had been on hiatus since 2014. Whatever the cause, the bulk of the audience appeared happy just to rock regardless.
Auerbach and Carney, with two backing guitarists and a bassist, kicked off the set with “I Got Mine” from 2008’s Attack & Release, one of the group’s most commercially viable albums, produced by Danger Mouse. Auerbach soloed through the final third of the song, and a lit-up sign bearing the band’s name descended from the ceiling, reminding us again that we were, in fact, there to see the Black Keys.
After the opening song, the group jumped into “Eagle Birds” and “Tell Me Lies” from their 2019 release, Let’s Rock. Each featured a blues-inspired guitar riff with a just-long-enough solo near the end. This is the Black Keys’ trusted formula, and they stuck to it throughout the evening, even while sampling from their large catalog. But that’s what the crowd wanted to see and hear: that trick that Auerbach and Carney do and do well.
“Don’t nobody want to be lonely/Everybody ought to be loved sometime,” sang Auerbach in “Eagle Birds,” as if he too longed for a moment of human connection, but then realized it was time to shred.
And then it was time to shred extra hard on tracks from the 2010 release Brothers and 2011’s El Camino. The excitement increased dramatically when the band launched into “Gold on the Ceiling,” and later “Howlin’ for You” and “Tighten Up.” There was the characteristic catchy riff, uncomplicated and easy to sing along to lyrics, and a screaming guitar solo, each time garnering a big response, in particular from baseball-capped dudes pumping their fists and guzzling cans of Surly Furious.
“We’ll play you an oldie but a goodie,” Aurebach said before launching into “10 A.M. Automatic” from 2004’s Rubber Factory. He said the same before “Thickfreakness,” from the 2003 album of the same name.
Auerbach and the two backing guitarists switched out axes so many times it seemed they must’ve held up a Guitar Center en route to the show. From Les Pauls to a rectangular model to a steely acoustic, there was no shortage of instruments.
Auerbach brought out an acoustic for “Little Black Submarines,” which offered a softer sing-a-long of sorts. Audience members waved cell phones and a few lighters in the air, while shouting out the chorus: “But everybody knows/That a broken heart is blind.” Then, just as on the album, the band turned things up with a big rocked-out ending and guitar solo, because, dammit, some habits are hard to break.
Going into the pre-encore track, “Lonely Boy,” Auerbach asked the audience, vaguely, to “help us out on this one.” He jumped into the riff, starting the cycle over again.
This is what the Black Keys do. Maybe it makes them a little bit like a contemporary AC/DC—repeating with minor variations the sound that they’ve always championed with a foolproof structure. But it’s how they’ve built their musical career over many years, and it works well in a stadium where listeners don’t necessarily expect to have an intimate connection to the artist. At least you know what to expect.
That’s more than you could say about Modest Mouse. The band started relatively strong, but even with a performance of the 2004 hit “Float On,” they missed the mark. Unlike the Black Keys, Modest Mouse and their idiosyncratic frontman Isaac Brock aren’t made for this type of venue. On the list of songs I never imagined hearing at a stadium rock show, “Satin in a Coffin” and “The Devil’s Workday,” with their creepy lyrics and twanging banjo, rank pretty high. But in general, the band seemed generally uninterested and Brock’s electric guitar was so damn loud it pretty much drowned out every instrument on stage.
A pleasant surprise, though, came from the first act, *repeat repeat. Husband-wife duo Jared and Kristyn Corder worked on their 2019 LP, Glazed, with Carney during the Keys’ hiatus. While the album is stellar, offering interesting lyrics and chord progressions, the songs sounded even better live, especially “Fortunate One.” During “Pressure,” guitarist/vocalist Jared Corder jumped from the stage to the barrier in front of the crowd and shouted that it was their job to get everyone rowdy for the next acts. He did this job well, leading the crowd in a giant scream.
For the Black Keys’ encore, an inflatable electric chair (as on the cover of their latest album) appeared in front of the large, round screen. With this backdrop, Auerbach and Carney played their recent single “Lo/Hi” and then “Go,” another from Let’s Rock. The show ended with “She’s Long Gone” and, of course, another blazing but not too long guitar solo.
The Black Keys did their thing, and then did it again. And again. But they did it very well. If the show didn’t excite you, it wasn't because you didn’t like the performance—it was because you just don’t like the Black Keys.
Critic’s bias: I recalled, while waiting for Modest Mouse to come on, that in high school I bought Good News for People Who Love Bad News around the same time I purchased a green t-shirt that had two guitars, flames, and the words “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.” (Badass, huh?) As the band’s set dragged on, and Brock’s guitar blasted my eardrums, these two unrelated things seemed to be tied together, like a prophecy that’s incomprehensible until fulfilled.
Overheard in the crowd: A woman to her friend as they walked through the mass of people lined up for beer or the bathroom: “It’s all hippies and hipsters.”
I Got Mine
Tell Me Lies
Gold on the Ceiling
Fire Walk with Me
Walk Across the Water
Howlin’ for You
10 A.M. Automatic
Ten Cent Pistol
Little Black Submarines
She’s Long Gone