Live Report: The Black Keys @ DAR Constitution Hall

26 July 2010

Washington, DC

This was my first “reserved-seat-at-a-big-fancy-theater-with-an-expensive-Ticketmaster-ticket-that-I-ordered-months-in-advance”-type concert in a long time. (You knows those shows.)

The act in question was Akron, OH’s beloved Black Keys, a band I first saw at First Avenue in Minneapolis four years ago, shortly after the release of Magic Potion, their major-label debut. In the years since, the Keys have only gotten bigger and busier, recording with Danger Mouse (’08’s Attack and Release), collaborating with rappers like Raekwon and Mos Def (’09’s BlakRoc), releasing solo discs (singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach’s Keep It Hid and drummer Patrick Carney’s Drummer project), and licensing tracks for select movies and shows, like HBO’s Hung and Eastbound and Down.

Although in my opinion the band’s best album is 2004’s Rubber Factory, I applaud the Black Keys’ largely tasteful decisions in extending their brand and getting paid. Here is a band that honed its live chops and distinctive garage blues-rock sound early enough in its career that when it came time to sign with a major label (Warner subsidiary Nonesuch Records), they had bargaining power to keep the creative control needed to retain hipster cred while also enjoying the promotion and payday of a major. (cf. Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie.)

But none of that holds much bearing in reviewing last week’s show. How are the band in the moment with an audience? Can the Keys still bring it live? The answer is yes, yes, good God yes. (Why even ask? Who let you in here anyway?)

First of all, Dan Auerbach is a shit-hot guitarist. His style is basically Delta blues plucking (usually with James Taylor-esque fingerpicks) on a Gibson SG (or other full-bodied electric) cranked way up, filtered through some dirty distortion pedals, and plugged into a refrigerator-sized amp. It’s a ridiculously big sound, but necessary considering the lack of a second guitarist or a bass player. (Also, it’s just fun to watch Auerbach play: a rarity among indie guitarists these days.) Meanwhile, Pat Carney bangs the living crap out of his drums, as if he and Auerbach were playing a kegger in an unfinished basement instead of a $50-a-seat limestone theater off the National Mall.

Only complaints revolve around the setlist, which started with customary opener “Thickfreakness”, and then proceeded to stay within a The Big Come Up through Rubber Factory comfort zone for six more songs, when a single from 2008’s Attack and Release (“Strange Times”) finally moved things forward. Songs from this year’s Brothers were reserved for a special mini-set in the middle of the show, and featured an added bass player and keyboardist. I loved hearing live versions of “Tighten Up” and “Everlasting Light” (complete with Auerbach’s new-found falsetto), but wish they could have been interspersed among the older songs throughout the set. Since that would probably have meant sacrificing the bass and keyboards, I’m left feeling in retrospect that the added musicians were a hindrance rather than a help.


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