The rise – and rise – of The Black Keys
It’s a long way from Antone’s to the O2. Antone’s is the venerable downtown Austin, Texas club which has seen hundreds – nay, thousands – of would-bes, wanna-bes and gonna-bes hit the boards over the years. Back in 2003, The …
It’s a long way from Antone’s to the O2. Antone’s is the venerable downtown Austin, Texas club which has seen hundreds – nay, thousands – of would-bes, wanna-bes and gonna-bes hit the boards over the years. Back in 2003, The Black Keys were just another band playing at that year’s SXSW festival, two freaks from Ohio looking to go up another rung on the ladder. My notes tell me that I thought “this two-piece drums and guitar/vocals set-up may remind you of the White Stripes, but their swamp-rock, sleazy blues and killer riffs will really knock you out”. They must have impressed me because, along with The Rapture, Buck 65, Molotov, Kathleen Edwards and Elefant, they were my picks of the festival.
Roll on nine years and seven albums and you’ll find Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney playing the biggest shed in Ireland. It’s not a geographical aberration due to current album “El Camino” catching on here with the new mainstream because this tour sees them playing big venues and headlining festival stages everywhere. Then again, the crowd also sing and romp along when they tear through older tunes too. While you could argue that they needed “Lonely Boy” to help them fill this room – while the room is not completely full, they’ve easily shifted more tickets than Van Morrison has for Marlay Park (contrary to the predictions of some OTR readers) – The Black Keys have been working steadily, slowly and perhaps inevitably towards this point for years. They’re now big potatoes.
Both much and little has changed since the first time I saw them. There’s extra musicians onstage now to broaden the sound but, midway through, they leave the stage and Auerbach and Carney return to jamming the blues like they were doing way back when. They’ve still got heavyweight riffs, thumping drumlines and a head of great, greasy tunes to get the show on the road.
The only real difference is the amount of people out front, which is probably something not even the most confident member of Team Black Keys would have predicted. But it happened and it’s a tribute to a few things. Sure, having the Nonesuch and Warner Brothers labels in the ring helped when it was time to lify “El Camino” to new heights. It was a case of “right time, right band, right album” to bring that one home, but the heavy lifting had already been done. Remember that major labels are at their best when it comes to accentuating and amplifying good buzz which already exists and Black Keys were already at that game when they were back on Fat Possum.
What needs to be pointed out again and again and again is how the Black Keys stuck to their guns. All the way through albums like “Thickfreakness” and “Magic Potion” to “Attack & Release” and “Brothers”, they kept the faith and kept plugging away, building a rep, a fanbase and a solid back catalogue, attributes which stood to them when the big time and the likes of the O2 came a-calling. Naturally enough, you won’t find any Black Keys’ album in Pitchfork’s People’s List chart because they never did fall into the vanilla-indie trap (sidenote – my God, what a predictable, stupefyingly boring list. Turns out that Pitchfork readers are far more conservative and meh in their musical likes than the writers).
But there is more to the Black Keys than the two-man blues-boogie. It takes about two or three songs for me to click that this is the second time I’ve seen Auerbach on a stage in 2012. Back in April, he was leading the band when Doctor John played his “Locked Down” album in full in Brooklyn, an album Auerbach also produced. A couple of songs later and I turned to musing about the duo’s Blakroc side-project when the duo and hip-hop impressario Damon Dash collaborated with Mos Def, Raekwon, RZA, Ludacris and others on a meaty, beaty album back in 2009.
Such side-projects point to a pair of musicians eager to push the envelope a little. Many would counsel them to keep their eye on the main prize and keep the Black Keys trucking along, but Auerbach and Carney know what such collaborations bring creative juice and sauce (and kudos) back to the mothership. It also prevents them going stir-crazy doing the same thing time and time again. While it will be interesting to see how the success of “El Camino” impacts their next album, it will also be fascinating to see how things like the Dr John work and the sense of adventure which they have as musicians dovetails with that. Be sure of one thing: the Black Keys will be back in venues like the O2 for many years to come.