I’m not one to play the “sell out” card lightly, but I levy the charge to Kings of Leon in this column.

I saw Kings of Leon twice in 2005, both times in small clubs, both in close range. It was loud, it was hairy and they rocked. As I said at the time, they sounded like the Rolling Stones had been sucked under a tractor.

I saw them again in 2007 on the main stage at Coachella, while coming to terms with their third album, Because of the Times. The sound was drastically different, slick and made for radio, with Caleb Followill toning down his scratchy yelp into something a bit smoother, though still unique. This was okay, I told myself. Bands need to mature to stay vital.

But the sound of that record didn’t sit well in the long run, though it sold very well. Their next album, Only By the Night, had huge hits, and I think I listened to it all the way through twice. “Use Somebody” became a lightening rod, a vapid tune played to excess by radio, television and frat-leaning bar bands.

The band themselves toured bigger places, eventually channeling their inner Axl Rose, cancelling shows and acting like prima donnas.

Kings of Leon took the easy way out, dove headfirst for the brass ring, and killed the special thing they had. The Black Keys took a slower approach, and seem to have a better shot at surviving the big time. For this, listeners should be thankful.


Photo by Hattie Trott/Flickr
The Black Keys torch Chicago's Riviera Theatre on New Year's Eve, 2008.

The Black Keys grow up without selling out




Tomorrow night, I plan on working my way through a few thousand people on the floor of the TD Garden, plywood and rubber laid out over the Boston Bruins’ ice, and as close to the stage as comfortably possible. I’ll watch the Artic Monkeys, bob my head, quietly judge their set (not negatively; I’m sure they’ll be cool) and then, around 9 p.m. or so, the Black Keys will take the stage.

The Black Keys, who I last saw at the tiny Marquee Theatre in Tempe, Ariz., with about 1,000 people, will take the stage at TD Garden for roughly 18,000 paying customers. The Black Keys, fronted by Dan Auerbach, whose solo show I caught at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston just two years ago, a venue with a capacity around 900.

I’ve dealt with bands growing up and growing out of small, intimate clubs before. Usually, it involves that band trading in the raw sound of their early records for a slick, radio-friendly and ultimately boring sound that allows for easy transitions to commercials and supermarket playlists — Kings of Leon come to mind. Other bands, like Coldplay, raised their act to arena level not by changing their sound, necessarily, but by having a sound with an easy, classic mass appeal in the first place. Their club days were few and felt more like necessary dues paying, not their natural habitat.

The Black Keys don’t fit the template of either band. Their sound has evolved through a decade of steady recording, but not in a blatant effort to catch onto the charred corpse of corporate radio. When Auerbach and Patrick Carney stacked the amps and blew out small clubs and theaters across the country, it felt like where they belonged.

I first saw the band at Boston’s former Avalon Ballroom in 2005, eventually working my way to the front for the last few songs of a furious set. In 2006, I made the mistake of getting myself right up against the rail, only to nearly have an eardrum blown out by Auerbach on the opening fuzz blast of “Thickfreakness.” At Coachella in 2007, I, along with a couple hundred other folks smartly skipped out on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ closing set on the main stage to watch the duo rock out in one of the smaller side tents.

While the band plied their trade on the road, they recorded constantly. After four albums and a couple of EPs of solid blues crunch, a transition started around the 2008 release of Attack & Release. The sound and, pardon the pun, attack matured, with new instruments and textures aiding the stereo shock. Auerbach found ways to make the banjo and spare drums sound menacing on “Psychotic Girl.” The natural riffs of the band morphed into bigger earworms with songs like “Strange Times.” The band began to get more attention.

Auerbach released his solo record, Keep It Hid, the next year, and the band collaborated with the Roc-A-Fella roster on their blues/hip-hop hybrid BlakRoc. By the time of Brothers in 2010, the wave was ready to crest. “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ For You” were tight, tough and bona fide hits, and the Black Keys were winning mainstream awards. El Camino was released late last year to strong sales and rave reviews (the author included), and the band announced their first headlining arena tour.

The morning tickets went on sale, they sold out Madison Square Garden in 15 minutes. A second show was added, and that sold out as well. The Black Keys were huge. Strange times, indeed.

Before that 2006 Boston show, I sat with a friend in a Quincy, Mass. pizza place, talking about the band and the likely thrill that night. He equated the experience of seeing the Black Keys, at that stage in their career, to Led Zeppelin at the Fillmore West in their earliest days, and the thrill of being one of the few in on this secret, that this was one of the best bands in the country.

I agreed, and we were both right. For their early shows to achieve that sort of legendary standing, they were going to have to grow up one day, once the secret of their music got out and the masses came calling. They were going to grow out of the Avalon and the Paradise. They were going to play hockey rinks.

The TD Garden in 2012 might as well be the Los Angeles Forum in 1975, albeit with tighter security and a serious curfew. The Black Keys, riding high on two popular albums, will take the stage and rock out. Assuming I don’t have any over-aggressive dudes in my immediate vicinity, I’m sure I’ll have a great time.

And some kid will be sitting in the balcony, taking in perhaps his (or her) first show. That kid will probably be deliriously happy. That kid will track down the setlist and talk about it ad nauseum, likely annoying friends and relatives in the process. He’ll listen to the albums, watch videos and, maybe, wonder what it was like to see these guys in the early days.

I’m lucky. I got to see them in the early days, before they moved from Fat Possum to Nonesuch, before they made high budget music videos. To see a band this great and this big in small places, I was obviously in the right place and the right time, at the right age to appreciate history being made before my eyes.

March 6, 2012

E-mail Nick Tavares at nick@staticandfeedback.com