They used to be on a label called Fat Possum; now they’re cashing fat pay cheques. The Black Keys’ rise from basement indie origins to arena-filling, Grammy-winning eminence is pinch-yourself, how-did-that-just-happen stuff. “London, are you still with us?” asked Dan Auerbach (vocals/guitars) so often of the city’s enormodome that he started to sound paranoid. We were, but it remained hard to believe that the Ohio-formed blues-rock duo has progressed this far.
Credit goes to Brian Burton (aka the producer Danger Mouse) for coaxing Auerbach and his lanky, bespectacled drummer, Patrick Carney, towards a radio-friendliness they once thought beyond them. The appetite for raw rhythmic energy, however, is entirely the pair’s own. Carney pounded away like a farm hand’s hormones at a village dance; Auerbach whipped up tersely scrambled solos from the molasses-thick churn of his riffs. Their music is a better class of comfort food, coarse but lovingly assembled: as satisfying as a gourmet burger.
At several points, it felt as if rock had stopped evolving in 1973, and all “punk” meant was a certain back-to-basics briskness. Auerbach and Carney were aided by a keyboardist and an extra guitarist. That these two were introduced as “John” and “Gus” only confirmed the no-fuss ethos. “Let’s try to fill up this big old room,” said Auerbach as the auxiliaries sloped off for a spell. Recalling the intimacy of seeing them in smaller venues, this was the best part of the night. Staggering and surging over fuzz-strewn debris, the stripped-down music had no problem operating at scale; it was the spectacle that lacked something. Comparisons are routinely made with The White Stripes, but it’s true: The Black Keys’ diligence pales beside Jack White’s showmanship.
Perhaps their pacing needs some thought, too. Hammond organ added a siren sway to “Ten Cent Pistol”, but was occluded on “Strange Times”, a track that could have done with more mystery. The Black Keys have successfully courted Kings of Leon’s crowd; they’re yet to rival that band’s mastery of the large concert’s narrative arc. Not that it mattered as the ferocious wiggle of “Lonely Boy” closed the set.
For the encore, two glitterballs sparkled during the agitated pledge of “Everlasting Light”, as Auerbach sang falsetto. “I Got Mine” then clattered and splintered through its epic chug – irresistible in any era. The key to The Black Keys? Analogue simplicity in a digital age.
The Black Keys support The Rolling Stones in New Jersey on Saturday.