The fabulous success of the Black Keys makes for one of the more intriguing stories in current pop music. There is, literally, nothing new about the band. Over the past decade, the duo from Akron, Ohio — guitarist/frontman Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney — has gone from playing small clubs and making small records for a small Mississippi blues label to filling the largest rooms on the rock-and-roll circuit. And they’ve made the big leaps without making any obvious artistic concessions. Friday night the band thrilled the crowd that packed Verizon Center with nearly two hours of a brand of guitar rock whose demise, judging from this show, has been greatly exaggerated.
Much as fans don’t want to hear it, the Black Keys still rely on the same template the White Stripes once did: a drummer/guitar duo that depends on huge, fuzzy riffs played on the sort of cheap guitars that generations of American kids used to buy at department stores and through tube amps as overdriven as the Beltway at rush hour. (The Keys opened their set with “Howlin’ for You,” a nod from 2010 to electric blues touchstone Chester Arthur “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, with Auerbach sporting an old fiberglass Airline guitar, like the one Jack White used to play in the Stripes.)
“Your Touch” ventured into AC/DC territory, and got the crowd on the seatless arena floor pogoing. “Lonely Boy,” the Keys’ unlikely radio smash, had the whole room standing and fist pumping. “Little Black Submarines” provided the night’s emotional high — and almost all of its dynamic range. The tune began with Auerbach softly plucking his guitar and warbling about his broken heart before Carney started pounding his kit and his oversized kick drum with John Bonham-ish fury. Auerbach then stomped on a fuzz box or three and took his voice to shriekish heights that a vintage Robert Plant — but not a whole lot of other lead throats — could hit.
For this tour the Keys have brought along two multi-instrumentalists and backup singers, who played most of the set in the rear of stage in the shadows, but the show was short on arena-rock flourishes. Carney stayed on his stool, and Auerbach shunned any moves that wouldn’t have fit on a small club stage. The one deviation came during the encores, when a massive disco ball dropped from the ceiling for “Everlasting Light,” and several thousand points of light filled the room. In other words, even the Black Keys’ props are analog.
Former U.K. buzz band the Arctic Monkeys opened. The quartet’s set suffered from a sort of Opening Actitus, in which the primary symptom is a lack of energy, though it’s not clear whether the crowd or the band is to blame for the lethargy. Regardless, no combo that has songs as great as “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor” should ever be this bland.
McKenna is a freelance writer.