The Black Keys are back in North America for a tour that should put them into the big time.
The concerts, which start this week, are low on frills. There are no props or pyrotechnics, no dancers or indulgent solos. Patrick Carney plays drums. Dan Auerbach sings and plays the guitar. Sometimes they are joined by a bassist and a keyboard player. That’s it. Still, their recent European shows contained plenty of raw rock n’ roll thrills.
The U.S. gigs, including performances at Madison Square Garden with the Arctic Monkeys on March 10 and at Coachella in April, will push the Black Keys beyond being a well-kept secret among alternative-rock fans. The Ohio duo’s basic garage-rock aesthetics and constant touring made them the toast of those who insist on their music being “authentic.” The Keys provide succor to those bereft by the demise of the White Stripes.
“El Camino,” the Black Keys’ seventh album, was released in December 2011. Well received, it reached No. 2 in the Billboard 200, selling more than 200,000 copies in the U.S. in its first week. It appeared on many critics’ best-of-year lists and the word spread. Future albums will surely sell more.
The London gigs showcased the stripped-down, rough-and-ready sound with which the Black Keys made its name and the glorious tune-filled songs, steeped in the traditions of soul, with which it is gaining its new-found fame.
“Howlin’ for You” opens the set with a twang and a tune that could have been written for the soundtrack of a Tarantino movie. “Run Right Back,” with its tight, skinny riff, is like the Rolling Stones with endearing insecurities. “Dead And Gone” grooves with the spirit of Motown, a testament to Carney and Auerbach’s inspired choice of Gnarls Barkley’s Danger Mouse as their producer.
Not that The Black Keys match the stage presence of Michael Jackson or Mick Jagger. Carney is scrawny and bespectacled, sitting above his modest drum kit at the front of the stage. Auerbach, bearded and wearing nondescript blue jeans and a black shirt, looks as if he would be incomplete without his guitar.
The music compensates for any visual deficiencies. Were the old blues myth to be true, Satan would be doing a roaring trade in Auerbach derivatives. The feedback howl of “Your Touch” is carved with lust and longing. Lyrics of honest-to-God man-emotion are delivered with melodic sincerity.
Carney’s meaty drumming can hit like a left hook that repeatedly lifts you off the floor.
He fared less well as the Keys played to more than 21,000 people across three sold-out nights at Alexandra Palace, London. The poor sound left too many of his punches pulled.
“Ally Pally” -- an ungainly general-purpose hall on top of a hard-to-get-to hill in the U.K. capital’s northern suburbs -- also has a low stage that makes it difficult for many in the audience to see the performers. It was a hindrance not a disaster. Even then the shameless howl and stomp of “Lonely Boy” had the crowd going.
Hopefully, better venues in the U.S. and Canada will really allow the Keys to shine.
The Black Keys North American tour starts March 2 in Cincinnati, Ohio, with dates including New York on March 12 and Coachella on April 13 and 20. The tour moves back to Europe in August, with shows in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, Germany and Ireland.
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(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)