The Black Keys Have to Enjoy Doing This, Right?

Categories: Last Night
Richard Haick
The Black Keys
Nicole Atkins
September 29, 2010
@ The Fox Theater, Oakland

Better than: Listening to old biker dudes noodle blues drivel in Guitar Center.

Dan Auerbach couldn't squeeze out a smile on stage last night, but his band stuck one onto the face of every broham and babe in the Fox Theater's sold-out crowd.

In the first of two long-overdue shows this week in Oakland, the Black Keys frontman wore the signature pallor and gloomy countenance that belie the rather obvious truth -- even more so with the hoarse glee of last night's audience -- that this is a fuck-yeah party-on blues-rock band, not a dirge squad.

Let his guitar-induced O-face be a clue. Auerbach's worried moans cast love as armageddon, and his face bore the feelings (usually bad feelings) in his music, but that's all just good decent theater. We saw you wanting to shoot your arms up joyfully, dude. We know you had to fight to keep the corners of your mouth from curling upwards.

With a room full of people who behaved last night as if it were the zenith of their piddling existence to hear "Your Touch" banged out messily, Auerbach probably should have acted happier. Lord knows his partner in this Akron, Ohio, gut-blues duo, Patrick Carney, was too busy hitting the shit of the drums (and keeping the songs together) to smile. Carney came out in a pale blue button-up and Buddy Holly glasses, looking like a nerdy extra from Mad Men; soon, having lost the glasses, he was all sweat, sinew and grimace. Looking at him just made you feel lazy.

Richard Haick
Their set began with the same-y stripped-down blues that their musical careers did. Auerbach spilled overdistorted guitar juice all over the eardrums of the place in an attempt to fill the sonic cavern between his throaty spew and Carney's clackety drums. So "10 a.m. Automatic" was all indistinguishable treble frequencies, but by "Stack Shot Billy," the sound had crispened up.

Richard Haick
Still, most of the early numbers -- lovably bare and authentically blue as they are -- struggled to reach the impact of the tunes from this year's Brothers (best Keys album yet), which (coincidence?) added bass and organ to the mix. Auerbach trotted out falsetto, his new vocal trick, on "Everlasting Light," during which the crowd was treated, absurdly, to a disco ball. Mirror globe away and bolstered by a serious low-end, "Next Girl" and "Tighten Up" rocked. But it was "Ten Cent Pistol," a simmering murder ballad in which the girl gets revenge on her cheating man, that had this now-four piece at its best. Here, Auerbach's lines lunged and rolled out of his mouth with an eerie ease -- likely the product of spending his college days cultivating an obsession with Junior Kimbrough and other genuine bluesmen. A sudden, pregnant silence toward the end, after which the band came roaring back, only punctuated the finality of the song's theme. (It was one of several loud-quiet moments in the set that showed a band firmly in control of its live dynamics.)

Richard Haick
The crowd, though, wanted to rock, and rock in that particularly riff-heavy straightforward way that mid-period 'Keys does. Next to me a bevy of drunk girls put away the iPhone cameras to hop in circles for "Strange Times" (band gone; guitar sound mess resumed) and "I Got Mine," which closed the main set and led into the howling demands of that awkward pre-encore jeopardy.

Richard Haick
Luckily the larger version of the Black Keys returned to lay down the ominous, thudding bass of "Too Afraid to Love You," and the worried shake of "Sinister Boy," both top cuts from the latest record. It wasn't terribly surprising, though, when the new half departed and left Auerbach and Carney to rip out "Your Touch" and give the sauced crowd its desired finale. Auerbach slayed his sunburst hollow-body like was feeling every note, but even the adoring eruption at the big end didn't get a grin out of him.

Richard Haick
Critic's Notebook:

Opener: Nicole Atkins swayed a solid crowd with updated Nashville rock and gorgeously creamy vocals. She was nearly upstaged by her guitarist, though, who laid down immaculate slide guitar lines and brought nearly every song to its climax with double-speed picking and creative fingerings. Both women wore elegant but conservative vintage dresses, as if to remind the crowd that their considerable looks weren't what got them on that stage. But by the end, after hearing Atkins' nimble voice race to the top of its range a few times -- and a mass slow-dance attempt that almost succeeded -- no one needed reminding.

Richard Haick
Nicole Atkins
The sound: Muddy as hell for the first few songs of the Black Keys, to the point where "10 a.m. Automatic" was pretty much impossible to follow for anyone who was paying attention -- just a big wash of surplus guitar noise, vocal reverb trail, and cymbals. The slop seemed particularly bad with one of Auerbach's guitars (the aforementioned sunburst model he began and ended with), but things improved when the bassist and organist came out. The quieter numbers sounded the best.

Personal bias: I thought I liked the Black Keys a lot -- I have all their records and a T-shirt, and I've been going to their shows since before Thickfreakness came out -- but no way could I muster the dance-crazed enthusiasm of many in last night's crowd. I also wouldn't want to miss watching Auerbach torture his guitar.

Richard Haick
Worth noting: The Black Keys are playing again tonight at the Fox, but it's also totally sold-out.

Thought of the night: If the Black Keys ever battle the White Stripes in a drums-and-guitar-two-piece Battle Royale of the Color-Named Blues Band, Jack White would probably win by shrieking everyone to death. But you'd still want to listen to the Black Keys afterwards.

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