Words & Images by: Eric Zimmermann
The Black Keys :: 04.02.08 :: Warfield Theatre :: San Francisco, CA
Pat Carney's drums took one hell of a beating last Wednesday. Carney, half of The Black Keys, winced, scowled and sweated his way through the band's concert at The Warfield, punishing his drum kit as though it were responsible for all the angst that inspires the Keys' rowdy blues-rock.
If Carney represents the band's raw, untamed drive, vocalist-guitarist Dan Auerbach is his smooth counterpart. Soulful and skillful, he crooned out his pained lyrics while hiding behind his shaggy bangs.
The Black Keys have their detractors. Any band that plays unadulterated and unapologetic blues-rock is going to be accused of artistic stagnancy, and critics of the Keys call them a bad Zeppelin knockoff. But, I don't think these guys care about critics. Their work has been so assertively consistent – viciously distorted guitar riffs over simple and fun drum beats – that they appear to be primarily concerned with one thing: loud, debauched rock catharsis. The variations in their previous albums have been subtle, generally featuring slight changes in temperament and tone: the playful debut Big Come Up, the warmer Rubber Factory and the fierce, if slightly cold, Magic Potion.
Which is why the news that Danger Mouse would produce their latest album came as a bit of a surprise. The jump from lo-fi, DIY warehouse rock to the meticulous, hip-hop oriented work of Danger Mouse was hard to fathom. The product of this collaboration, Attack & Release, was released the day before their show at The Warfield. "How many of you downloaded it illegally?" Auerbach asked the audience. "You motherfuckers." The album clearly bears the fingerprints of their new collaborator: eerie background vocals, inventive rhythms and slightly more nuanced instrumentation.
But, Wednesday night proved that the Keys haven't strayed too far from their signature aesthetic. From the twenty-foot inflatable tire in the back of the stage – with "Black Keys" superimposed over the Goodyear logo – to Auerbach's worn flannel shirt, the duo radiated a Midwest, working class ethos. And they took every opportunity, from introductions to equipment labels, to remind the audience of their hometown of Akron, Ohio.
Dan Auerbach :: 04.02 :: The Warfield
Unlike the traditional stage setup where the drums are in the back of the stage, Carney and Auerbach played side-by-side, indicative of how integral each musician is to the band's sound. There is no "backup" member in The Black Keys, because when you've only got two members, there is no margin for error. Thanks to this dynamic, as well as Auerbach's magnificent guitar work, the Keys sound like more than the sum of their parts.
Opening with "Girl Is On My Mind," Auerbach cried out for a woman to "hold me close to you!" Judging by the fan-girl shrieks from the front row, more than a few were willing. On "Thickfreakness," his opening guitar line ripped through the silence like a chainsaw. Though Auerbach's eyes were hidden behind his hair for most of the evening, it was certainly not indicative of shyness. Every emotion this guy possessed was laid bare and channeled directly into his flame-orange guitar.
In the blues tradition, Auerbach's lyrics are minimalist. That's probably for the best, since his gravelly voice tends to melt syllables together into one steady stream of moaning, and this effect is heightened in concert. At The Warfield, his voice fluidly meandered through each song, as much a musical instrument as a means of articulating words. Like all effective blues singers, he communicated pain more through the desperation of his voice than the specificity of his lyrics.
Carney's uncle, Ralph Carney, made a surprise appearance to play flute and sax for two of the band's new songs – "Same Old Thing" and "So He Won't Break." The elder Carney, part of Tom Waits' band, accompanied the Keys on Attack & Release. In the midst of such heavy guitar rock, the flute sounded refreshing and more than a little haunting. The sax was inaudible on "So He Won't Break," but it hardly mattered. The song is a raw plea for the salvation of love, and the guitar-drum dynamic did it perfect, minimalist justice. "You know the difference it makes/ And you know all it takes/ Is love, so he won't break," Auerbach cried, his quivering voice both agonized and controlled.
The Black Keys :: 04.02 :: The Warfield
The band seemed entirely comfortable with their new material. Auerbach slung his guitar around his back and sat down at an electric organ for "Oceans & Streams," a minor key, grinding ghost of a song. However, the best might have been saved for the encore. "All You Ever Wanted" is a mournful masterpiece, and the duo sucked every last piece of emotional marrow from its depths. The song features one of Auerbach's most potent lyrics to date: "When you work the streets, darlin'/ Make sure your sneaker laces/ They get tied."
Because the Keys' music is so raw, it translates well to the live setting. There are no missing bells and whistles, no aesthetic nuances lost when the band leaves the studio. That may change as their work becomes more intricate, a trend perhaps indicated by Attack & Release. But, if their show at The Warfield was any indication, The Black Keys are perfectly secure in their own blues-soaked skin. Enough so, at least, to experiment with new sounds without sacrificing what makes them wonderfully, cathartically morose and abject.
JamBase | City By The Bay
Go See Live Music!