The Black Keys: Still Finding Their Arena-Rock Sweet Spot

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Photo: Greg Fiume for I.M.P. and the Verizon Center

Let’s stipulate a couple things off the bat:

1.) It’s an encouraging sign for music, for America and probably for the whole human race to see a blues-rock duo sell out an entire arena.

2.) The Black Keys are somewhat ill suited to play such a venue.

These two seemingly disparate truths were on full display Friday night, as the Keys brought their blockbuster tour to Washington, DC’s downtown arena.

Among the most diverse groups you might ever see at a concert, the sold-out crowd mixed leather-clad biker types alongside teenage girls still squarely in the Katy Perry demographic. (At one point, as anti-sex-symbol frontman Dan Auerbach addressed the crowd, one of them could even be heard cooing, “We love you, Dan.” Truly surreal.)

Surely, such crossover appeal isn’t stemming from their back catalog of gut-bucket blues from Rubber Factory or The Big Come Up, but rather their recent chart-toppers, the more soulful (and yes, poppy) Brothers and El Camino. And that’s largely where the set resided, drawing around three-quarters of the material from those two albums. And not just, it seemed, for the simple reason of immediacy, but also because the newer songs, which also feature sidemen John Wood and Gus Seyffert, just fill out a cavernous venue that much better.

Personally, I was looking forward to the mini-set in the middle of the show when Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney shed Wood and Seyffert and revert back to their original, bluesier two-piece lineup. I stood corrected. On tracks like “Thickfreakness,” the extra amplification needed for only two musicians muddied Auerbach’s fuzz tones, while Carney sounded like he was playing in an empty airplane hangar. The two, at times, even seemed to struggle to stay together amidst all the reverb, much as their blues-rock brethren Jack and Meg White infamously did when they graduated to larger venues.

Even visually, the Keys operate in sort of an arena rock no-man’s land. Their music (and persona) obviously unsuited to a glammed up stage full of props, a la U2, their sparse decor amounted to nothing more than a few towers of movie-set lights on stage, along with a video screen backdrop. A pair of disco balls appeared to bathe the audience in tiny dots of light during one of the set highlights, Auerbach’s falsetto showcase “Everlasting Light.” The four musicians were also oddly clustered together in the middle of the oversized stage, as if they’d really rather be playing a 700-person club. And Auerbach’s banter showed none of his famous sense of humor, simply thanking the audience and announcing that they were “going to keep it moving” with the next song.

That’s not to say the set was without it charms. Far from it. The new material, with its impossible-to-ignore dance beats, was hugely successful live. In particular, the foot-stomping lead single, “Lonely Boy,” was a revelation, even managing to outdo the already-infectious hook of the recorded version. “Little Black Submarines,” the paean to 70s stoner rock from the new disc and arguably the closest thing to “arena rock” all night, was another high point, leaving everyone wishing they had an airbrushed conversion van to retreat to for a little kind bud after the show.

And Auerbach and Carney closed the encore themselves with a raucous, aggressive take on “I Got Mine,” slowing it down, drawing it out, playing with the dynamics as the audience went along for the ride—a final reminder that once upon a time, this was a great small-club blues act.

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