"The Black Keys performing live on stage." That's one of a handful of statements on the Akron, Ohio duo's line of exaggeratedly plain tour merchandise, but it's also an unintentionally spot-on statement about the Black Keys' shows. Not only are their performances built around straightforward versions of their eight-album-deep recorded catalog, they know it. Ever since graduating to arenas and headline slots (at pretty much every festival on the face of the Earth, no less), they've been gradually adapting to playing stages hundreds of times bigger than the clubs they played for the first half of their existence. Earlier this year, they followed up the biggest tour of their career with the most insular, studio-expansive album of their discography, Turn Blue. But the meticulous, orchestrated nature of those songs is at odds with the punchier, more anthemic material that led to the Keys' massively successful last few years, and while the latter group continues to dominate their performances, the more experimental tendencies of the former is what's truly alluring on the duo's 2014 trek.
This is the second arena run of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney's career, so they know how a few things are going to run on their treks, and one of those is the duo's atypical choice to eschew bringing new acts on tour as opening acts in favor for ones that have experience playing to big rooms. For El Camino, that meant English stadium champions Arctic Monkeys. On this tour, it means Cage the Elephant, St. Vincent, and for this leg, English songwriter Jake Bugg. Bugg isn't quite as popular as either of those acts, but he has a following in America, and onstage, he doesn't screw around. Bugg moved away from the Gallagher-isms from his debut album and towards a more stripped-back, rockabilly-influenced sound on his sophomore effort, 2013's Shangri-La, which undoubtedly translates better to a live setting. Addressing the audience briefly only at the start and end of his set, Bugg nearly spent more time away from the microphone shredding blues runs on his guitar than he spent singing. While his drummer and bassist fiercely pounded away at the rhythms of "Lightning Bolt", "Trouble Town", and "Seen It All", Bugg traded any sense of typical frontman crowd appealing for something far more efficient and, considering how many similarly-booked bands resort to desperate crowd diving and unnecessary auxiliary percussion pounding, something unexpectedly refreshing.
While The Black Keys' 2014 tour is technically behind Turn Blue, the night's performance was largely defined by things established on El Camino and its ensuing tour. The band's inaugural arena run in 2012 was essentially the same gritty performance they'd been giving for years, just on a larger scale. The visuals were more in-depth, the duo hired some backing musicians to fill in the songs, and their self-aware graphic aesthetic showed up in the form of a massive light-up sign spelling the band's name during their encores. Two years later, that facetiousness has been exchanged for a sort of junkyard circus majesty, albeit one that isn't that different than the last tour's staging. A massive curtain drops after a few songs to reveal about twenty haphazardly arranged light fixtures lining the back of the stage, while video screens and blue stage lights augment the rest of the space. It's not significantly different than the El Camino tour but then again, it wasn't really broken, so why fix it? The Black Keys have always been road dogs, and its their chops, not their staging, that serve as the heart of the show. Auerbach and Carney continue to have an onstage relationship similar to Bruce Springsteen and his longtime drummer Max Weinberg; while the former trots around the stage singing and launching into spontaneous guitar licks, the latter keeps focused the entire time, holding down a heavy rhythm that serves as the band's center. And from the opening four-on-the-floor pound of "Dead and Gone", that synergy was front and center. Although they've done away with the section of the show where the original two play older material, there was never any question who were the stars of the evening.
It's worth noting that some old material did appear in the night's setlist – "Leavin' Trunk" and "Strange Times" confirm that the Black Keys would still sound great, if not better, in a hole in the wall rock club in Ohio – but the Black Keys now have three albums of arena-ready tunes to pull from, and they know it. El Camino, the band's most anthemic album by a country mile, and the band's 2010 breakthrough Brothers dominated the evening, but that's hardly a bad thing. Songs like "Lonely Boy", "Tighten Up", "Gold On The Ceiling", "Next Girl", and "Howlin' For You" sound great when their choruses are being shouted by thousands of people. When Auerbach asked the crowd to "help us out on this next one" – essentially the only thing the quiet frontman said all night – they obliged. And when the performances were centered around the band's interplay, they were even more enthralling. It's worth noting here that Auerbach is highly unsung for the depth of his guitar playing. While his guitar playing will likely never be flashy enough to inspire hallucinogenic trips to mystic castles, he's an incredibly tasteful player, and all the better for it. His leads are so seamless that they feel like natural extensions of the rhythm parts (a skill he exhibited as the backbone of Lana Del Rey's excellent Ultraviolence), which is no easy feat, especially when considering that he's singing at the same time. When he does allow himself to rip it on "Your Touch" and "Weight of Love", his solos are more about tone than speed, using just as many notes as it takes and no more. "Weight of Love" ended up being one of the show's undeniable high points, with a four-deep rhythm section linking together as Auerbach alternated between singing and soloing as the Turn Blue logo spun in the background.
Curiously, "Weight of Love" was one of only four Turn Blue tracks to be aired that night, and despite having quite a bit of touring left to do, it seems that the band are aiming to move on from the album sooner than later. (Auerbach has said the album, written after his divorce, was painful to make and Carney has stated that the duo are itching to return to the studio, perhaps as soon as January.) Turn Blue is the duo's most studio-intensive outing yet, and it wouldn't be fair to criticize them for keeping 75% of the El Camino tour's setlist for this outing without noting that El Camino took significant influence from '70s arena rock where Turn Blue draws from far more introspective and insular records. To put it simply, there's something to be said for playing to your strengths, and even though they seem to already be prepping for their next chapter, that's what The Black Keys are doing the road this year. As the other set of premier American arena rockers are getting ready to move into stadium territory, The Black Keys seem to be pushing themselves farther in the studio, but the Turn Blue tour is a sure sign that their performances, while certainly solid now, will soon follow in the same adventurous direction.
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