We’re still reeling from the hypnosis that The Black Keys left us in. Monday night in Oakland, the duo demonstrated their incredible ability to stay true to their blues rock roots — fittingly still turning their sound blue — while escaping the stasis that often overcomes bands of comparable longevity.
Broadcasting a slightly more refined sound and tapping into a deeper psychological vein in Turn Blue (Nonesuch, 2014), Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are becoming veterans in their own right and exploring different facets of their artistry. With several world tours behind them, these Ohio natives have cast a large shadow across the realm of contemporary rock ‘n’ roll and continue bringing older styles back into the popular sphere.
Jake Bugg, a 20-year-old indie-folk phenomenon from the UK, opened the night with a musical attitude that conjured nostalgia from the golden age of British punk. Merging this flavor with folkier, Bob Dylan-esque elements, Bugg has formed a style entirely his own that resonated especially powerfully in the closing performance of “Lightning Bolt.”
With few things to say and an air of modesty amid the rising tide of their fame in the music industry, The Black Keys dove right into a back-to-back set including selections from most of their eight full-length studio albums. Starting with “Dead and Gone” from El Camino (2011), the tone was set for full display of the expanded body of sound that The Black Keys have developed over the years — adding a bassist and keyboard player to their live show since their start as a raw rock duo. The spread of “Next Girl” (Brothers, 2010), “Run Right Back” (El Camino), and “Same Old Thing” (Attack and Release, 2008) over their discography indicated that the rest of the performance would pull from installations throughout their career rather than being disproportionately centred on Turn Blue.
Without stopping for a second, “Gold on the Ceiling” and “Strange Times” juxtaposed light and dark elements, the complexity and the simplicity of The Black Keys’ band structure. “Leavin’ Trunk” from their first LP, The Big Come Up (2002), had, according to Dan, only recently reentered the band’s live set rotation.
Sliding in with its infectious guitar riff, “Howlin’ For You” (Magic Potion, 2006) communicated almost primal emotion and seduced the crowd into a smooth dance. Waiting until the second half of the set to give a taste of the new stuff, Auerbach’s tone in “Fever” (released as a single) took on notes of hysteria with transitions between a softness and a grittiness that paralleled the track’s messages of conflicting emotions. Dropping one bomb after another, “Tighten Up,” “Your Touch,” and “Lonely Boy,” elicited exaltations from the audience and roars for an encore amid a starscape of cell phone flashlights and lighters within the darkened coliseum.
Returning to the stage after a rather long pause, the full effects of the new album were released as the blue velvet backdrop fell to reveal a spinning wheel resembling the album cover. Combining “The Weight of Love” and “Turn Blue” in an epic superjam, The Black Keys pulled the crowd into a time warp where the high energy hits from earlier were almost forgotten. Closing the night with a soulful part-acoustic part-electric rendition of “Little Black Submarines,” the audience was left in a space of contemplation with a side note of apprehension.
While each point within the show was welcomed with enthusiasm, the overall composition of the setlist came as a bit of a surprise with a slight underrepresentation of the new album. Expectations aside, The Black Keys never fail to satisfy every faction within their fan base while balancing between artistic sovereignty and selling out. Refusing to let the mainstream wash away the stain of classic rock, the Black Keys soldier on year after year, genuine contemporary artists.
Article and photos by Conner Smith