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Black Keys Concert Review

Bridgestone Arena, Friday, May 3rd, 2013

I went to see the Black Keys live at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville last night, with the Flaming Lips.  As a substantial part of what I have to say will sound negative, it is important to emphasize that it was not by any means a bad show. The band played a pretty amazing amount of material and were definitely energetic and engaged. It was not, however, a great show, because of a few nits I have to pick.

What drives the Black Keys as a band (at least for me) are two things: the power of Dan Auerbach’s soul voice that has been unlocked in the post- Attack and Release albums, and Auerbach’s driving blues riffs. I have often wondered how he accomplished both at the same time, and it turns out: he can’t. Auerbach is a more energetic and creative guitar player live, and he accomplishes this at the clear expense of his singing, which fades in and out throughout the show. Worse, he often alters the rhythm of his singing to match his frenetic riff alterations, which makes it difficult to sing along. This might be blasphemous in the minds of many Black Keys fans, but I think they would be better served as a live band by hiring someone to do some of the guitar lifting in their shows. Auerbach absolutely butchered Strange Times last night to the point that it was nearly unrecognizable from a vocal standpoint, and that’s one of my five favorite songs of theirs ever.
Another problem is that, live, the Black Keys have a problem letting their slow songs be slow songs. Several of the medium tempo songs, like Sinister Kid, were unjustifiably played as ridiculous, up tempo renditions of themselves. By way of contrast, the few occasions when they allowed themselves to actually slow down (such as during Little Black Submarines and Ten Cent Pistol) were the few transcendent moments in the show.

The high point of the show was when Auerbach and Carney dismissed the rest of the band and played a set of 6 or 7 songs from the pre-Attack and Release material. These renditions were considerably better than their album counterparts, which were recorded under the worst possible conditions. The live renditions of Girl is On My Mind and Have Love Will Travel were especially powerful. It made me wish that they would revisit some of this material, at least for the purpose of remastering it. But what it highlighted, really, is that this is still where Auerbach and Carney are most comfortable both as musicians and showmen. The truly talented front men for rock bands can engage their audiences in such a way that really turns the entire event into kind of a mass hypnosis experience for the audience, and Auerbach simply does not have that ability with a large stadium audience. He struggles to incorporate the slicker elements of production into shows and even the light show was mostly tacked on as an afterthought. After all this time, they are still most comfortable as a spastic two-man set who are forced to play all the slicked-up stuff because that’s what’s expected of them. The closing encore, which was easily the highest point of the whole experience, was a similar rendition of I Got Mine, wherein Auerbach and Carney almost wholly abandoned faithfulness to the album and just let it all hang out, to outstanding results.

This presents somewhat of a problem for the  Black Keys as a live act: probably half their modern concertgoing audience couldn’t even identify Thickfreakness or Rubber Factory as Black Keys albums (much less be able to sing along with any songs off those albums), and yet they seem uncomfortable moving beyond that stage of their development as a live act. I myself tell people who haven’t yet discovered the Black Keys that they should start listening at Attack and Release and move forward from there – while I appreciate their older stuff, it would be absolutely fair to say that prior to Attack and Releasethe Black Keys were a standard fare garage blues rock band. Since then, however, from a studio standpoint, they have become something else entirely, to the point that they truly do feel like the last rock band standing. Unfortunately, their live act still hasn’t caught up to that point entirely.

I think the Black Keys have easily been the best studio rock band of the last five years but as a live stadium I show I have to give them between 2.5 and 3 stars.

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