The Black Keys are in the midst of an epic victory lap that could also be viewed as an effort to conquer the rest of the world. Seven albums into their career, they’ve suddenly hit both artistic and popularity high points. Their style of blues-rock has become a sound that appeals to absolutely everyone. Indie kids like them for being hardworking and “underground” for so long. Fans of popular music are attracted because their singles are loaded with hooks and easy to enjoy. Classic rock lovers enjoy the throwback sound. Basically you’re fooling yourself if you claim to dislike the band – and it doesn’t hurt that primary members Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are just plain likable during live shows. The sound and the group don’t seem to disappoint.
So now that they’ve hit it big, The Black Keys are off on a big stadium tour of the US and Canada in support of their late-2011 album El Camino. And perhaps most shockingly, they’ve brought fellow indie superstar band Arctic Monkeys along as the opener. The very same Arctic Monkeys who are pretty huge in their own right with four straight number 1 albums in the UK (and top 25 albums in the US). So in the midst of this excellent tour (including an already sold out stop at MSG in late March) the Keys and Monkeys stopped at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio and I managed to indulge in my second outing with the Akron-based band.
Arctic Monkeys opened the evening on a glorious note with a made-for-arena cut off Suck it and See, “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair.” Their booming guitar sound easily filled the venue and got the (still entering) crowd to respond with a sizable cheer. The British group filled the rest of their set with equal energy and strong rock tunes. The songs off their first record stood tall as the top selections from the openers. “The View from the Afternoon” was played at a breakneck pace and had a real bite that the studio recording only hinted at. “Afternoon” was paired with its sibling track, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” which was unleashed to similarly excellent effect. The former top single in the UK sounded even more essential than ever, with the breakdown on the chorus exploding. “Dancefloor” alone would have been the highlight for a show with Arctic Monkeys as the headliner. Arctic Monkeys easily proved themselves as worthy of the big-venue setting and the audience came away impressed and ready for the Black Keys.
And then (after a brief stage setup break) the real show began. Which is a remarkable statement given the excellent performance from and reception for the Arctic Monkeys. Quite simply, the Black Keys understand how to run a rock concert and keep the audience in the palms of their hands for every moment of a show. The Keys whipped right into (now arena sound staple) “Howlin’ for You” and never let up. The guitar sound was full and bluesy, but the live setting and a perceived greater speed gave the tones a distinct edge that effectively forced heads to bang and fists to pump.
In recent tours, The Black Keys have been adding extra musicians to perform the more complex songs from the two newest albums. None of two-person immediacy is lost and the more innovative compositions shine brightly with the augmented setup. But the Keys also take some time to cut things back a bit; a four song mini-set during the show featured just the two essential members.
It was with only drums and guitar that the band’s full charm took effect. All four of these tracks were lively and the chemistry between Auerbach and Carney was absolutely evident. However, the true highlight of this simpler setup was “Your Touch,” a staple of the Keys’ catalog. The song was huge live and threatened to eat up the entire arena. Other rock bands take note: you don’t need a big lineup to get powerful sounds.
Following a great rendition of “Lonely Boy” and a brief break, the band returned for a three-song encore and finally succeeded in melting any to-that-point still whole brains by bringing out two massive disco balls and playing “Everlasting Light.” Was it cheesy? Oh absolutely. Was it an amazing lighting effect anyway? You bet. Yes, The Black Keys fully understand levels of guttural “rawk” and music (or showmanship) as pure fun. And that’s what makes their stage performances significantly better than their studio output. While they write catchy songs and lay down some nice riffs, their live presence just can’t be captured on vinyl, CD or mp3.
The Black Keys are surely one of the best live bands currently active in the US. Their addictive, primal blues-rock blends well with the infectious energy and earnest performance ability. Their show in Columbus last Sunday was exceptional, and when paired with a similarly great opener the whole event was well worth the price of admission. Be sure to check out both bands if tickets are still available for any shows near you.