CINCINNATI — Back in 2004, blues rock duo the Black Keys played a show at the now-shuttered legendary Newport, Kentucky, rock venue the Southgate House. And they didn’t play the big room, either. They played in the small parlor upstairs, which held 150 or so fans, at best.
Flash forward to Friday night, and the Woodie-nominated Keys were less than a mile away, over the river in Cincinnati, kicking off their North American tour at U.S. Bank Arena: capacity 17,000. With a reported sell-out, the band celebrated their platinum status with 90 minutes of their patented hard-chopping blues and little of the arena theatrics you’d expect from a first trip to the bigs.
“It’s good to be back home. We’re the Black Keys and we’re from just north of here,” Akron, Ohio, native Dan Auerbach told the crowd as the group — which also includes drummer Patrick Carney and two touring sidemen — opened the show with a blitz through “Howlin’
for You,” “Next Girl” and “Run Right Back.”
The usual move when a former bar band makes the jump to basketball arenas — which, let’s face it, happens less and less often these days — is to go all-in with the flashy light show and stage props to dazzle the crowd and make their music seem bigger and more theatrical. Not the Keys.
Yeah, there was a screen at the back of the stage that showed some flashing psychedelic test patterns and black-and-white footage of old Las Vegas; there were also four stands of movie-style spotlights. But the real focus was Auerbach and Carney. During “Dead and Gone,” Carney, whose drums are situated right up front next to Auerbach, smashed the bare-bones kit like he hated it, creating a thunder crack that matched his partner’s fuzzed-out guitar sound.
They stripped back down to a duo for a four-song set mid-show, showing off their talent for revving songs up, down, up and then further up for live favorite “Thickfreakness” as well as “Girl Is on My Mind” and “I’ll Be Your Man,” during which Carney wielded just one drumstick as he hit the cymbals with a tambourine.
It was about this time that you might have looked around and realized, “Man, this is 2012 and a blues band has packed this arena, which hosted Justin Bieber last year!” A blues band. That’s an amazing accomplishment for a group that has put in more than their share of road work and had the kind of slow-and-steady climb that rarely happens in this era of rocket-straight-to-the-top pop stars or grind-’em-out club bands.
By the time they got to “Little Black Submarines,” you could tell why that is. The song built up slowly with just Auerbach and a lightly strummed guitar as the fans anticipated the mid-tune explosion. And fittingly, for what will from now on be an official arena anthem, the lyrics kind of make no sense. But they still force you to joyfully sing along at full throat. That is the true sign you’ve made it.
“Nova Baby,” from last year’s El Camino, is the closest thing the band has to a yearning pop tune, with Auerbach reaching up his upper register only to turn around and unleash a boomerang guitar riff to Carney’s ground-shaking drumming for the set-ending single “Lonely Boy.”
You could tell it was a real arena show because just before the encore, a fight broke out in the stands, with two blitzed couples pulling hair and throwing haymakers as they waited for the music to resume and tumbled down two rows of seats into a heap.
And then the Keys came as close as they would all night to bowing to the pressure of blowing up their show to fit their new stature. A giant disco ball descended from the ceiling (with a satellite disco ball in the middle of the arena floor) for the swaying “Everlasting Love,”
which went along at a slow boil until, of course, it blew up into a wall of noise. The band closed out with the boozy chant “She’s Long Gone” and a ripping “I Got Mine,” as Auerbach humbly told the crowd, “What a way to start this tour. … It’s beautiful.”
And if you root for the underdog, or for rock, you had to agree.
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