The Black Keys in Phoenix
Photo by Jennifer Starr
The Black Keys
U.S. Airways Center
There was a time when it wouldn’t have been right for The Black Keys to play a basketball arena such as the U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix. The two-piece garage-blues outfit that grew out of an Akron, Ohio basement couldn’t possibly have filled such a space, nor was the demand there for them to try. But on the heels of two diverse and popular albums – which made up the bulk of the material on this night – the band had no choice but to step out of the clubs and onto the big stage.
And, as they proved all night, there was no problem making the jump. In fact, their sound and intensity dwarfed the song studio versions. Loud, raw, fuzzy, primal, forceful, guttural, intimate, and sensuous are all terms that were interchangeable throughout the 85 minute show. Where a song could be louder, it was; when there was room for an earth-shaking bass line run, the world rocked. Guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Dan Carney – with the help of two unnamed band members revolving on bass, organ and guitars – had everything turned up to 11 because in this case, more was better.“Phoenix, let’s move it,” Auerbach shouted, launching into a sped-up version of “Howlin’ For You” that set the tone for the night. “Next Girl” and “Run Right Back” followed in quick succession, alternately pushing the pace or slowing things down just below the song’s normal pulse. There was something of that New Orleans slightly off-the-beat vibe present – maybe something Auerbach picked up through his recent work with Night Tripper Dr. John.
If there was one thing that stood out during the evening, it was the band’s reshaping of even their most popular numbers. Tempos shifted frequently, Auerbach sung at a different pace, or the fuzzbox was maxed out. For a band in a state of hyper-evolution, and with an over abundance of creative flow, it certainly makes sense. Playing the same songs the same way night after night might work fine for most bands, but it’s clear The Black Keys continue to reach for more be it in the studio or on the stage. “Gold on the Ceiling” serves as a great example. The bottom end vibration on the record? Forget it. The deepest, loudest sort of savage fuzz pushed the live song to such a limit that Auerbach’s solo was nearly drowned out.
The band dug into their deep catalog as well. “It’s just Dan and Pat now,” Auerbach told the crowd just before launching into “Thickfreakness,” which more than adequately lived up to its name. “Dead and Gone” helped expose newcomers to the band’s roots. Both songs were performed in the band’s original drums and guitar configuration, and went far to disprove the theory that the two-piece version couldn’t handle a larger venue.“Little Black Submarine” slowed the pace down and served as a transition point back to the full band. While Auerbach crooned into the microphone and worked his acoustic guitar magic, the band under shadow of darkness snuck back in. When Auerbach stepped back to grab his electric and shouted, “Let’s keep it moving,” the thunderous three-guitar launch into “Money Maker” was as explosive.
Behind Carney’s darkened-street walking beats and drifting percussion, tracks like “Sinister Kid” and “Ten Cent Pistol” felt extra dirty – the kind of feeling you want to brush off, all the while secretly enjoying the goose bumps. “That alone was worth the ticket price,” one concertgoer was overheard saying after “Ten Cent Pistol.”
Behind and above the band a series of projection screens alternately showed cropped images of Carney and Auerbach, images of old cars, street scenes, desert landscapes or random shapes and flashes. Hardly a distraction, these projections merely added a place to go while getting lost in the music.
The band wrapped their set with “She’s Long Gone,” Tighten Up," and “Lonely Boy,” slipping offstage to a thunderous roar. “I don’t know why we don’t play here more often,” the returning Auerbach told the roaring crowd as a disco ball created a glittery glow for a well-received “Everlasting Light” and show-closing “I Got Mine.”
And though the concert was over – where did the time go? – there’s little doubt the buzz continued for hours.