Words by Bill San Antonio
If the adage of truly “hitting it big” after selling out Madison Square Garden holds true, then The Black Keys have steamrolled toward a new plateau in their ever-evolving career.
The Grammy award-winning blues rock duo played their first-ever headlining show at the Garden on March 12th, the first of two sold-out dates alongside Arctic Monkeys as part of a nationwide tour in promotion of their latest record, El Camino, which went gold in January.
Following a swanky 45-minute set by the Monkeys, the Black Keys took the stage at about 9:30 p.m. accompanied by boxing-inspired introductory music and a flashing neon light show.
As the stage went dark and the duo broke into “Howlin’ For You” to jumpstart their ferocious hour-and-a-half-long block, the band joined the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and The Who in the illustrious, electrifying musical history of the World’s Most Famous Arena—a far cry from the days when the band played before crowds of two people and drove overnight to venues in a van that was constantly breaking down.
After starting off with five consecutive songs off their last three records, the Keys’ backing musicians—a bassist and keyboardist/percussionist/backing guitarist—left front-man Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney together onstage in the band’s original lineup to play a string of songs from the band’s early years of plodding tempos and fuzzy guitar rhythms, “Thickfreakness,” “Girl Is On My Mind,” “I’ll Be Your Man,” and “Your Touch.”
The incorporation of backing musicians into the Black Keys’ live act in recent years has bulldozed any limits to the band’s onstage spontaneity and creativity, as Auerbach led the group in meticulous soloing and riffing that intensified the experience of most tracks. He even picked up maracas in conjunction to his lead guitar part on “Chop and Change,” which appeared on the Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack.
On “Ten Cent Pistol,” two songs later, Carney extended the song’s opening drum solo and added an accompanying tambourine part before Auerbach’s melody joined in.
The band truly shined, though, when Auerbach’s slicing riffs perfectly fell in line with Carney’s trudging beats, most notably on the key change on “Little Black Submarines.” In those moments, when Auerbach would look back to Carney almost in re-assurance before unleashing one of his three solos on the track, the Black Keys reached rock harmony by way of vastly different routes.
Auerbach’s crooning, bluesy falsetto highlighted the verses on “Strange Times,” and showcased his vocal range into the upper-registered near-whisper of “Everlasting Light,” which the band played during a three-song encore that culminated with a shellshocking, distorted rendition of “I Got Mine,” off the band’s 2008 record Attack & Release, which planted the Keys’ flag firmly atop the (incredibly) still-intact Madison Square Garden roof.
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