The Black Keys work their tunes in a stadium-sized setting
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
“We’re going to play the next few songs just the two of us.”
There was acknowledgement in Dan Auerbach’s voice as he prefaced the opening feedback splash into “thickfreakness” of the Black Keys’ very recent past, before Danger Mouse-produced records, chart-topping sales and curcuits running through smaller venues.
What was once the norm is now a mid-set deviation, a nod to the past and their roots. For four songs, the Black Keys stripped back down to the original duo, the backdrop video screen turned black, and Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney simply turned up the intensity and ripped.
That segment began with the aformentioned assault, and without aid of their visuals or two touring musicans, Auerbach and Carney turned Boston’s TD Garden into a rolling noise bomb, one rooted in distorted blues turned up to rock star levels the likes of which last rolled through the city decades earlier, in that tiny barn known as the Boston Garden.
What the Black Keys are doing on this tour supporting El Camino can easily be seen as an admirable feat, an effort to bring gutsy rock and roll back to buildings more often occupied by truly vapid bands or giant productions owing more to the elaborate stages of Broadway than rock and roll of that classic, Zeppelin-esque fashion.
This is the Black Keys as a big, ticket-selling band, but there isn’t too much difference. Yes, the band is aided by a bass player and an organist on most of the songs now, a necessary addition and acknowledgement that their recent records are much more complex affairs than their early work recorded in Carney’s basement. But those guys toured with them the last time out, when they were still playing smaller and mid-sized venues. Outside of, perhaps, a lesson in recognizing those in the back of an 18,000-seat arena, the band seems determined to not change too much of what they do; rather, they’re just delivering that music to more people than before.
Interestingly enough, the Black Keys didn’t have to look to far for arena showmanship lessons. Openers the Arctic Monkeys plugged in and blazed through their 45 minutes, with frontman Alex Turner, in his thick Sheffield tongue, effortlessly engaging the audience, with the building at about 50 percent capacity when the band’s set started and near full by the end.
The Arctic Monkeys, one of England’s bigger bands right now, are more than used to main stages at festivals and large European tours, and it shows. There was an organic feeling to their set; this is a band with big songs written to fill a big room, no sweat. The steady thump of songs like “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I Moved Your Chair,” combined with Turner’s natural showmanship, set the tone and got the crowd revved. To that end, it was mission accomplished, and the bass-rattling tremors left the audience ready for more.
But to be clear, it’s not as if the Black Keys struggled. Moreso, it was an acute awareness of how new this all is. The jump from mid-sized venues to arenas is a big one, but it’s all made easier by the music. By far, the majority of the set came from their past two records, Brothers and El Camino, which are each jammed with sounds that outsize the two of them. From the get-go, “Howlin’ For You” set the tone with it’s “Da da, da DA da!” chorus filling the room up to the rafters.
Musically, there was not a misstep to be found. The songs from Brothers probably came through best, with “Ten Cent Pistol” and a disco ball-aided “Everlasting Light” showing that the band’s true development has nothing to do with location but what’s taken place in the studio. On the past three albums, the band has flexed its muscles and recorded truly unique albums, ones that are certainly worthy of their increased exposure.
But this is a new gig, and there’s still room for growth. During the closing “I Got Mine,” the band stripped back down to the core duo and the volume in the building cranked back up to deafening levels. As Auerbach ripped through a solo, a 1970s-style light board came down from the rafters, reading “THE BLACK KEYS.” However, some of the first lights weren’t quite operational, leaving the sign to read, “ LACK KEYS.” A mistake, or a tongue-in-cheek nod to the arena misfires of a bygone era?
They took off after that song, so there was no way to find out that night. But any questions of this band and these songs working in a huge setting were settled quickly and definitively. Watch these guys in a club, or watch them in a stadium. Either way, ears will be left ringing for days on end.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org