Singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney of the Black Keys sealed their ten-year ascent – from a pair of hard-working aces, cutting heavy-attitude fuzz-box blues under basement and abandoned-factory conditions in Akron, Ohio, to the best young classic-rock band in America – with a tight and feisty display at New York’s Webster Hall on December 5th. Displaying everything they’ve learned and mastered over that decade, the 18-song, 75-minute show, streamed live on MTV Hive, was a special record-release affair for the Keys’ seventh studio album, El Camino (Nonesuch) and featured more than half of that record’s radio-ripe brusiers. In the plaintive strut “Sister,” Auerbach laid on the double trouble, with karate chops of rhythm guitar and vocal streaks of R&B falsetto. The main hooks in “Run Right Back” were Auerbach’s snarling-guitar undertow and the crying-slide lick, played live by one of the two backing Keys, guitarist-organist John Wood
But the set list covered the whole of Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney‘s journey through and out of their roots, going back all the way to “I’ll Be Your Man” on their 2002 debut, The Big Come Up, and stopping off at “Your Touch” from 2006’s Magic Potion. The history lessons highlighted how far the duo has come from the binary stomp and grind of their early records to the trailer-park T. Rex effect of “Everlasting Light” on 2010’s Brothers and the crossed wires of glam-era David Bowie and the MC5’s guitar chaos in El Camino‘s “Gold on the Ceiling.” The inclusion of “Chop and Change,” a garage-noir outtake from Brothers that ended up on the Twilight soundtrack, Eclipse, proved they have plenty of that adventure to go around.
The Power of Two
For this show, arguably a preview of the band’s 2012 U.S. arena tour, the Black Keys flipped the script of their Brothers live act. Instead of opening and closing as a duo, Auerbach and Carney spent most of the night working with their expanded lineup – Wood and bassist Gus Seyffert – and slimming down to a duo for a mini-set in the middle. In either format, the Keys still rely on simple knockout dynamics: Auerbach’s spidery guitar intro (a la Keith Richards in the Rolling Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues”) into the climbing grind of “Girl Is on My Mind” from 2004’s Rubber Factory; the primary drive of Carney’s kick drum in the crunch and surge of El Camino‘s “Dead and Gone.”
Having a little help to fill in the decorative touches and bass-guitar heartbeat on the last two albums – along with the firing-line experience of non-stop touring – has liberated the front man inside Auerbach. When the band hit the long false stop in “Ten Cent Pistol,” Auerbach stood at his mike, holding the crowd’s energy at bay, with the grin of a guy who has discovered the power and sharing in his work. Carney is a marvel to watch as well, a surprisingly orchestral drummer in the thick of his hammering concentration. The comparison that came to mind during Brothers‘ “She’s Long Gone”: Keith Moon if he’d had been a session man at Chess Records in the early Sixties.
Just the Beginning
The only disappointment at Webster Hall was the absence of El Camino‘s relative epic (at four minutes), “Little Black Submarines.” On the record, it starts like pitch-black sorrow – Auerbach pining against acoustic guitar, a rattle of tambourine and thin curdled organ – before blowing up into a thundering despair of choral vocals and gang-of-fuzz guitars. According to the inside track, Auerbach and Carney did not feel they had rehearsed the song enough to make it ready for the stage.
But there is no hurry. This is Their Moment – that remarkable time when a great band is about to hit life-changing paydirt. The Black Keys will have plenty of time next year to get the rest of El Camino – the best record they’ve ever made – where it belongs, on to the road.