The Black Keys Loosen Up: Backstage on the 'Turn Blue' Tour

Deep cuts, shifting set lists and a giant "hypno-wheel": behind the scenes on their arena tour

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys during soundcheck before their show in Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: Peter Larson

On a Saturday afternoon in Cleveland, Patrick Carney kicks back in his dressing room at Quicken Loans Arena, smoking a cigarette in a chair next to an exercise bike. Below a giant TV is an FC Twin console, a system that plays both Nintendo and Super Nintendo games. To relax before shows, the drummer often plays one of the dozens of vintage games he's brought on the road, including Maniac Mansion, Mega Man and Wall Street Kid.

"You have to make as much money as possible trading stocks," he says of Wall Street Kid. "But you also have to keep your girlfriend happy with jewelry and cars. This is for kids. It's so fucked up."

It's the second day of the Black Keys' Turn Blue world tour. With 48 arena dates through December, plus looser jams and a trippy stage set, it's shaping up to be the Keys' coolest, most ambitious tour yet.

Tonight is a hometown show for the duo, who come from nearby Akron. As Carney talks, his iPhone lights up with text after text. ("Every single person you know asks for a ticket," he says. "It's a little bit irritating. And then our parents will bring, like, all of their friends.")

Singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach spent the day driving around town, discovering his favorite guitar store has closed and passing old haunts like the Beachland Ballroom, where the Keys played their first show. "We got paid $10, and then for the second gig they didn't pay us anything," Auerbach says, sitting in his dressing room after a soundcheck.

As he talks, the Grateful Dead's "Candyman" plays on vinyl (the Dead were Auerbach's first-ever concert). The Keys, for their part, are taking a more Dead-like approach to their current gigs, switching up their set each night after mostly sticking to the same songs while touring behind 2011's El Camino. The previous night, in Columbus, they debuted a cover of Edwyn Collins' 1994 fuzzed-out soul cut "A Girl Like You," and played their "Leavin' Trunk" for the first time since 2002. Carney hopes to capture these moments on their first-ever live album: "I'd love to record with a mobile truck with tape and, like, a good deck. The idea of recording it off the desk on Pro Tools and coloring it in later seems a little cheap to me."

Late in the afternoon, Carney heads to Auerbach's dressing room, where they look over four possible set lists Carney has printed out. "The last tour was our first in big rooms," says Carney. "Now, I think we're really comfortable and we want to be more on our toes."

So far, the Keys are having more fun on this tour than they did on their six-week run of European festivals this summer. They were less than thrilled to encounter giant stages that felt miles from the audience, and VIP setups that catered to, as Auerbach puts it, "these shitheads with their blondes – like, the promoters, and their buddies with beers in koozies."

Soon, it's showtime. The 90-minute set proves how comfortable the Keys have become as an arena-rock act, blending the raw power of their early albums with breakthrough singalongs like "Howlin' for You." The stage setup is the Keys' biggest ever: 17 LED screens playing low-res videos and psychedelic images, a 16-foot "hypno-wheel" that appears for the encore ("Turn Blue"), and vintage crate lights that give things a Seventies arena feel. ("They said no lasers," says stage production designer Eric Cathcart.) "I remember going to a Dylan show at a basketball arena, and I just couldn't see him," says Auerbach. "We wanted to give people a closer look at what's going on onstage."

Backstage after the show, family and friends mingle at a crowded afterparty, cheering as a red-faced Carney enters the room (Auerbach doesn't show). He makes the rounds, taking photos with friends' kids. Among the crowd is one of the world's biggest Keys experts: Jim Carney, Patrick's father, who recently retired after 35 years as a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal and who's seen dozens of Keys shows over the years. His verdict on tonight's gig? "They have never played better," he says. "The chemistry is really fabulous – they're as relaxed as I've ever seen them."