With their eighth LP, Turn Blue, debuting at the top of the Billboard Albums Chart, the Black Keys might be the biggest rock band in the world at the moment, but you wouldn’t have known it standing at the back of Nashville’s 500-capacity Mercy Lounge last night. There, the duo (and a pair of sidemen) played a rare club gig for an invite-only crowd of Music Row suits and contest-winning super fans, the latter there via SiriusXM, which broadcasted the hour-long show live on its “Alt Nation” station.
Naturally, the contest winners were thrilled to sweat it out in sauna-like temperatures at the front half of the shotgun-shaped club, singing along to stompers like “Howling for You,” “Next Girl” and the reliably great “Gold on the Ceiling” with ecstatic glee. The back half, meanwhile, where T-shirts were for being sold at the arena-ready price of $30, was buzzing with chatty, texting hobnobbers who seemed more than happy to have some sweet background music to drink to — very Nashville.
The schmoozer babble was especially apparent during the slow burners from that moody new record, which produced five of the set’s 13 songs. But while frontman Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney had to work to get the non-converted to groove along to headier Turn Blue tunes like the spasmodic space-blues “Bullet in the Brain” and the psychedelic chill of the title track, upbeat new jams like the Exile on Main Street-indebted, meat-and-potatoes rocker “Gotta Get Away” (performed for the second time ever) inspired an almost delirious response across the room.
Onstage, it seemed as though the band was playing equally to those listening over the radio, turning in slick renditions of Brothers and El Camino staples — like the pounding “Dead and Gone,” which opened the show and the “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” homage “Little Black Submarines,” which closed it — that stayed true to the original recordings. Maybe even too true: It was on the decidedly sloppy, distortion-drenched “Strange Times” that Auerbach and Carney came closest to rekindling the rawness of their club days.
The duo actually played the Mercy Lounge three times during those early years, and while Carney’s gloriously ungraceful drumming has helped the Keys retain more grit than most pop stars, it’s clear they’re now more accustomed to playing bigger stages. Here, Auerbach crooned with a fine, committed rasp and bopped about in between verses, trying to find a way to get comfortable in front of such a close-knit crowd. “Thank you guys for coming out and supporting us tonight; new record; hometown,” he said early on. By the end of the night, he’d found his hometown groove.