The Black Keys have just downed a couple of "Recession Special" hot dogs at New York's Gray's Papaya. Gray's is one of the guitar-and-drum duo's favorite spots, and it's a fitting place for a couple of low-key Akron, Ohio, dudes to fuel up for a night of sweaty blues-rock heroics. "Sauerkraut and brown mustard," says singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach. "Always."
Taking a stroll through Central Park on the way back to the venue, drummer Patrick Carney, 28, points toward the nearby Dakota apartment building, where Yoko Ono lives. "Brilliance is being whooped up in there right now," he says. Auerbach, 29, adds, "We played a show with her in California. She handed out little flashlights and talked about peace."
The Keys are in town to play two sold-out shows behind Attack and Release, the 2008 Danger Mouse-produced disc that is their biggest – and best – to date. (Auerbach has also just put out his first solo album, the excellent Keep It Hid.) Minutes before showtime, the guitarist changes into an H Bar C brand black cowboy shirt with white fringe. "A guitar player's shirt," he says. He's also just taken delivery of a 1965 Gibson SG, which he plans to play that very night. "It's kinda ridiculous to play a new guitar without having practiced," he says happily.
Opening act the Heartless Bastards, who play a similar style of supercharged blues rock, were discovered by Carney: After hearing them in an Ohio dive bar, he passed their demo on to the Fat Possum label. "I probably should get some sort of money for that," he jokes. "Cheap-ass Fat Possum fuckers."
Onstage, Auerbach belts out his songs in a raw baritone as Carney pounds heavily on his kit. Rain-dancing through the hour-long set, Auerbach often makes prolonged eye contact with Carney, a high school friend. After tearing through their take on the Stagger Lee standard "Stack Shot Billy," they get the crowd bobbing to the menacing "10 A.M. Automatic" – during which Auerbach bellows, "What about the night makes you change/Oh, from sweet to deranged?" As if to answer, they follow with the skewed soul of Captain Beefheart's "I'm Glad." The hip-shaking set ends sweatily with encores of "Psychotic Girl" and "Till I Get My Way."
Afterward, Carney wipes himself down with a towel that "smells like flowers, pickles and stale beer" – before heading back to his hotel to meet his wife. (He's slightly annoyed she didn't mention him in her Facebook list of "25 Random Things.") Auerbach cracks a bottle of Maker's Mark and passes drinks to friends and his uncles Tim and Jim, who flew in for the show. And the new Gibson? "The guitar," he says, "was fucking awesome."
This story is from the March 5th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.