Google image search ‘The Black Keys’, and the vast majority of the hits will show you a thoroughly unfashionable duo that are further from being stereotypical rock stars than 311 are from sending Scott Stapp a Christmas card! Looks however, can be extremely deceiving, and after almost a decade of releasing unmastered, droning blues, the doublet from Akron, Ohio have applied a retro-modern edge to their music. The meteoric rise the band has seen since 2010’s Brothers, and the enhancement of that with 2011’s El Camino, has led to The Black Keys embarking on their first UK arena tour, and on Friday night landed in Newcastle equipped with a 20-strong set that had 10,000 fans shaken with the bassiest fuzzed guitars and meticulously thumped beats.
London indie-rockers The Maccabees provided sole support for the Ohio duo, and off the back of critically acclaimed album Given to the Wild, which was nominated for the 2012 Mercury Prize, delivered a set that warmed the crowd appropriately. A half hour set that included 2006 breakthrough track X-Ray was enough to whet the appetite of the blues fanatics that had flocked to Newcastle, before two dressed-down men in their thrity-somethings casually strolled onto the stage, simplistically arranged to focus the limelight entirely on guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach, and drummer Patrick Carney.
The Black Keys, following the release of El Camino late in 2011, managed to sell out New York’s famous Madison Square Gardens in a mere 15 minutes earlier this year. This would be hard to believe considering Auerbach and Carney’s humble entrance to the fray, but any initial overwhelming overtones were quelled. Carney instigated the unmistakable thump of fan favourite Howling for You before Auerbach responded with the according licks, quickly establishing his own bravado in the process. The frontman, no longer sporting the ostentatious facial hair lithographed into the album artwork of 2008’s Attack and Release, looked in his element, bouncing to the groove he was responsible for, conducting unanimous handclapping and heightening the libido of any female in the arena.
The anti-flamboyant roots of the band that was incepted in the midst of the garage rock revival, often in the shadow of bands such as The White Stripes, was showcased admirably in the stage set up. The limelight was proportioned so that equal focus fell on Auerbach and Carney, and one could watch either one on a Sky Sports PlayerCam for the entire set and have a maintained sense of enthrallment. Carney, a gangly figure who was by all accounts an outcast at school, hammers his weapons of choice in a thoroughly natural manner, and watching this is stranger than seeing a lone camel grazing in the rain in a rural British field. Auerbach quickly establishes bravado and thrashes out riffs with consummate ease, whether in the form of the Hendrix-esque Next Girl or Zeppelin infused Little Black Submarines, which was sang back to him in a myriad of decibels.
It was midway through the set however that the performance was fine-tuned most proficiently. Men of few words on stage, Auerbach announced “We’re gonna play just the two of us for a while”, before catering to the needs of the true cult fans, dispensing with the touring musicians and reverting to the two-piece that defined their early sound. The droning riff that is the nucleus of Thickfreakness, followed by Girl Is On My Mind and Your Touch created a cacophony of sound that shouldn’t be possible from a two-piece; a wall of sound reminiscent of Jack and Meg White on their Get Behind Me Satan tour. This chapter, entombed within a presentation of the tunes of El Camino and Brothers responsible for broadening their sound and giving their raw blues a more modern edge, provided an excellent structure to the setlist and allowed the journeyed rockers a chance to showcase their entire repertoire in a deconstructed timeline, encompassing all from The Big Come Up right up to El Camino.
All in all, it was a comprehensive victory for Auerbach and Carney. The two most celebrated tracks since their commercial breakthrough, Tighten Up and Lonely Boy, offered an emphatic farewell before a thoroughly enchanting encore. Gentle, upbeat groove Everlasting Light was accompanied by a spiralling light show, catalysed by two huge disco balls, whilst Auerbach’s angelic falsetto showcased all of his versatility and range before the final finale in the shape of another crowd favourite, I Got Mine. The track’s soaring riffs gave the proverbial rafters of the Metro Radio Arena an intense workout, confirming just why the bands international popularity has sky-rocketed in the past couple of years. The reaction of the crowd to the likes of Lonely Boy, Gold on the Ceiling and Little Black Submarines is testament to the stratospheric rise in stature the band have experienced since the success of Brothers. The proficiency of the duo’s controlled braggadocio even in such a simple, casual set up meant that this was a superbly balanced performance, and confirmation that The Black Keys’ are a truly accomplished band, both on a raw sounding record and in an arena environment. An excellent evening, and a very strong 84% rating for their nights work!
Oh, and the setlist can be found here! http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/the-black-keys/2012/newcastle-metroradio-arena-newcastle-upon-tyne-england-5bda1b64.html