Thank you for smoking
The Black Keys climb into bed with Camel on their summer tour
By MATT BERRY
STATIC and FEEDBACK staff writer
Corporate interest in rock music is nothing new. The influence of dollar signs and greater distribution is infiltrating the indie-rock level, as evidenced when luring artists to sign with major labels. Such is the case for the Black Keys, who left Fat Possum records to sign with Warner’s Nonesuch prior to their 2006 album, Magic Potion. Not many fans view the Keys as a band looking to sell out, even while their songs have been featured in ads for American Express and Victoria’s Secret.
Regardless of one’s opinion on whether they have sold out or not (which I for one don’t believe they have done), a further step in the commercialization of the band began earlier this month, when they set out on a tour with Dinosaur Jr. sponsored by Camel Cigarettes.
When the show was announced early this month, I was ecstatic. I had seen the band twice in 2006 and was ready for my fix of the ragged blues-rock duo. I was surprised at the fact that they were playing at the Tabernacle, which is roughly twice the size of the last venue they had played in Atlanta. I quickly ordered my ticket and made the two hour trek from my apartment in Athens on the day of the show. I had read something about the tour being sponsored by Camel, but since so many tours have sponsors these days, I didn’t pay much attention to it.
I arrived early to grab a bite to eat at the nearby CNN Center. Posted around the doors were giant posters for Camel, along with a notice that said that doors would open at 7 p.m. with the show beginning at 9, a full hour past the start time listed on the ticket — the first of several signs that something was awry. As I stood in line, many fans streamed to the box office, picking up blue promotional tickets they had gotten for free through Camel. As an usher walked down the line giving out bracelets for those over 21, a Camel representative asked if anybody was a smoker. Those who were and had a pack of Camels on them received backstage passes for after the show. Finally, just before doors were scheduled to open, the ushers created a new line for Camel tickets only, right next to the original line. Needless to say, those of us who had arrived early and waited our turn were not too happy. A group of guys from Savannah had driven up to see Dinosaur Jr., and like many in line, expressed to me their anger that such treatment was being given to those who had paid good money and arrived early.
Once inside, the prevalence of Camel was even more obvious. Signs, posters, and spotlights displayed the Camel logo all over the venue — for you health nuts, you’ll be happy that despite all this, there were still Surgeon General’s Warnings abound. Smoking was allowed in The Tabernacle for the show, unlike virtually all other performances. With an extra hour to kill before the show started, most of the crowd hit the bar. That extra hour of drinking would prove crucial as the show went on.
Finally, six paragraphs in, I can talk about the music. And it was great. I had heard very little of Dinosaur Jr. before the show, but they surprised me with their loud, fun, loud, energetic, loud show. J. Mascis’ guitar work was crafty, but Lou Barlow’s bass overpowered the band in a beautiful way, sending driving pulses throughout the crowd.
The Black Keys took the stage to a flurry of applause and proceeded to deliver the type of performance their fans have come to expect of them. Anyone who has witnessed the thunderous beginning to “thickfreakness” in person can attest to the awesome power that Dan Auerbach’s fuzzed-out slide guitar and Pat Carney’s thumping drums possess. The band was on fire, with Auerbach extending his solos longer than usual and running all over the stage. The set was a typical Black Keys show, with their heavy rock songs sandwiched around the blues-based “Stack Shot Billy,” “Busted” and “Everywhere I Go.”
The music and performances were flawless, but the problems spurring from Camel’s presence persisted. Halfway through the Keys’ set, a major portion of the crowd, clearly very drunk, began to mosh aggressively. The crowd pushed time and again towards the front, pressing myself and the others up front into the barricades. During the encore, the same people began to crowd surf, despite the fact that they had little control over their bodies. No one up front could pay attention to the band for fear of getting clobbered with a flying boot. A couple of shoes were thrown dangerously close to Auerbach on stage.
Throughout the one-song encore, Auerbach made several flubs on his guitar while paying attention to the situation. The extra hour of drinking, combined with plenty of free tickets and generally odd atmosphere created by Camel’s presence, took away from the wonderful performances by Dinosaur Jr. and the Black Keys. It’s sad to say that a sponsor stole the show from the headliners of their show for all the wrong reasons, but that’s exactly what Camel achieved.
As Auerbach looked on while half the audience could not pay attention to him, he should have seen corporate influence shifting people’s focus away from the music and towards the experience of a Camel concert. Hopefully, the band will see that the amount of exposure they may receive from associating themselves with a conglomerate may not be worth the swaying of fans’ focus away from what’s really important: that this is one of the most talented and promising bands in America.
E-mail Matt Berry at email@example.com