To surrender to the sway of the Black Keys is to worship at the altar of the Riff. The Riff is holy; the Riff is sacred; the Riff may seem simple but is, in fact, really, really fucking awesome. If you can't get down to Dan Auerbach's thick, fuzzy blues riffs and Patrick Carney's follow-the-leader drumming, there's the door. At last night's sold-out Pageant performance, there were clearly many, many fans ready to take your place and happy to bang heads, pump fists and sing loudly with the Akron, Ohio duo.
Up until this year, the secret to the Black Keys' success has been to do one thing, to do it well, and to do it over and over again. Auerbach's muddy blues have never been flashy, and his circular guitar lines have a nearly hypnotic effect. The dude gets a hell of a ragged tone, and coupled with his whiskey-and-honey vocals and Carney's floor tom-punishing drumming, the Keys had come up with a pretty good formula. Predictable, and at times indistinct from song to song or album to album, but a unique sonic calling card nonetheless.
This year's Brothers changed all that. Funky grooves replaced raggedy riffs. Repeating guitar lines became actual chords. Scattershot drums morphed into honest-to-God breaks. Credit the duo's work with Danger Mouse (who produced 2008's Attack and Release), the hip-hop collaboration Blakroc, or the recording of Brothers at the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, but somehow soul had become as important as the blues. And at last night's show, these soul-infused Brothers tracks stood head and shoulders above the Black Keys' earlier material.
The stage set was simple but lovably kitschy. The band played in front of a backdrop emblazoned with two hands clasping in the middle of an automobile tire, a nod to both the title of the latest record and to Akron's role as "the rubber capital of the world." Even the drum and keyboard risers were lined with oversized tire treads. For the first part of the set, Auerbach and Carney played as a duo. The show opened with the pair ripping through the Zeppelin-y rock of "Thickfreakness."
Auerbach's technique, part slide blues and part classic rock, really is something to see. He's able to hold down the low end, usually with the constant pluck of an open string, while filling in the rest of the blanks. A song such as "The Breaks" exemplified his technique: It rode a seesaw of bottom-heavy fuzz and high, shrieking notes. Carney, on the other hand, looks every bit the self-taught drummer even after all these years. He attacked his gold-sparkle kit with such vigor and intuition that it wasn't clear if he was directing traffic or riding the waves of Auerbach's guitar. It was probably both.
After eight songs, something nearing sacrilege took place: Two others, on bass and organ, joined the boys on stage. It was an admission that while the two-man-band dynamic has its place, the Black Keys is willing to trade in its chief attribute for musical heft. On a song such as "Tighten Up," the bass allowed Auerbach to lay down some funky upstrokes on his guitar, while the reedy Farfisa organ gave ominous color to many of the songs during the middle of the set. When he plays as part of a duo, Auerbach has to be judge, jury and executioner on his songs; in a four-piece, he can simply play and let his band mates carry some of the weight. For his part, Carney's development was the biggest surprise of the night. The drum fills on "Tighten Up" were spot-on, and his funky intro to "Howlin' for You" was sample-worthy. "Ten Cent Pistol," a song whose lyrics resemble a Neko Case murder ballad, was slowed down to a simmer, like a warped version of the Stones' "Miss You." It was a rare instance in which the band toyed with the dynamics of the set, raising the tension with a halting tempo.
After "Ten Cent Pistol," the Black Keys' sidemen departed the stage, leaving the core members to close out the set with some of the strongest performances of the night. "I'll Be Your Man" had the easy, soulful strut of a lost Otis Redding cut, and set-closer "I Got Mine" riled the crowd even further with chunky, barreling guitar licks and some well-placed cowbell by Carney.
For an encore, all four musicians returned to play Brothers' opening cut "Everlasting Light," which, as on the record, features some charming falsetto from Auerbach (though the intro's whistles were a bit off. Not everyone can be Andrew Bird). It was nice to hear him modulate his vocals for a change; he normally on the same self-assured growl from song to song. The duo closed the night with "Till I Get My Way." If the crowd had its way, the Black Keys would have kept the riffs coming.
Setlist: 1. "Thickfreakness" 2. "Girl is on My Mind" 3. "10 a.m. Automatic" 4. "The Breaks" 5. "Stack Shot Billy" 6. "If You See Me" 7. "Everywhere I Go" 8. "Strange Times" 9. "Same Old Thing" 10. "Tighten Up" 11. "Next Girl" 12. "I'm Not the One" 13. "Howlin' for You" 14. "Sinister Kid" 15. "She's Long Gone" 16. "Ten Cent Pistol" 17. "Your Touch" 18. "I'll Be Your Man" 19. ? 20. "I Got Mine" Encore 21. "Everlasting Light" 22. "Till I Get My Way"