Photos: Kimchi Photography

The Black Keys Adapt Sound for Let’s Rock Tour

When a band like The Black Keys plays The Anthem, it raises the question: Could we see the end of arena shows? And would that be better for rock music? It was a fitting query during their set on October 12, which fell on the second anniversary of the waterfront mega-venue’s opening. 

To catch everyone up to speed, The Black Keys are a rock band – formed by guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney – that rose from the rust belt and rubber factory landscape of Akron, Ohio in the early 2000s as part of that era’s garage rock revival (The White Stripes were the most prominent flag-bearers). The duo’s first records drew on vintage sources and familiar soundscapes to color their raw, early records: sneering electric blues, fuzzy psychedelia, rubber-burning, hot-rod worthy rock n’ roll, and a sense of earworm melody and warmth derived from Motown soul. The group best packaged that sound for a wider audience on the 2010 release Brothers and have since expanded that formula to a more arena/classic rock breadth on their most recent three releases.

The Black Keys’ new album, Let’s Rock, is something of a “back-to-basics” record for the band, cutting out the added expanse of keyboards from their last record and producing it themselves. The current live show (which appears again at The Anthem tonight) holds a kind of similar ethos, attempting to balance stadium swell and rock club sweaty rave. In an arena, like Capitol One, the Keys are somewhat lost by the sheer distance, size and design of the space. But in a venue like The Anthem, their lies a possibility for the band to have the best of both worlds. 

Attendees of most-large scale concerts will tell you that hearing the music – the nominal ritual that you are partaking in, en masse – is one of the biggest challenges of the night (in addition to seeing your favorite performers, depending on your seats). So, when The Black Keys hit the stage with their five-person live band, the first thing I thought was “this is actually not loud” and that’s in spite of the group’s attempts to ensure greater volume. The Keys have this neat magic trick for playing the in the enormous spaces they do now, an illusion based on sound. Even though there are five musicians on stage – one drummer, one bassist, three guitarists – you are led to believe only Auerbach and Carney are playing. The backing musicians lock in tight with the leading men: guitarists Steve Marion and Andy Gabbard shadow Auerbach, making the one guitar roar with the strength to shake rafters while bassist Zach Gabbard does an intricate dance with Carney’s drums, hitting his bass notes off the bass drum and toms to give the rhythm some subwoofer oomph. The trick works as well for older cuts like “10 A.M. Automatic” or new ones from Let’s Rock like “Walk Across The Water.”

The condensed space – The Anthem holds about 6,000 max, half of most arena crowds – the crystalline, specific details in The Keys’ vintage sound came through like an unearthed vinyl on a turntable. Auerbach’s onslaught on pristine, wizened guitars could attack the airwaves with their full potential, hitting the crowd with a sharp but warm sound that bites like your favorite whiskey. On “Strange Times,” from the group’s 2008 album Attack & Release, Carney and Auerbach’s fingers flew across their instruments in an accelerated blur, leaving behind the distinct smell of burnt rubber from Akron’s Firestone tires.

Watching the sea of (thousands of) faces on the floor of The Anthem was like observing a human body undergoing a reflex test; some songs hit and made the limbs dance, others landed with a thud. The audience churned like a storming sea during the main-set close, one-two punch of “Little Black Submarines” and “Lonely Boy” but chattered through new material like “Eagle Birds” and “Fire Walk With Me.” Even though the songs of Let’s Rock exist in more of a continuation with the Keys’ leaner, earlier sound, why the disconnect? Could that explain why rock music seems to slump on a major cultural level, rarely present in arenas or on the Billboard charts?

This is where a venue like The Anthem comes into play – what if The Black Keys played more like it, cut down on the big visuals, bigger sound, bigger band and played just Auerbach and Carney again? There was so much rich detail in older numbers – like the hot rod rev-up into “Thickfreakness” or the lip-curling snarl of “Howlin’ For You” – that could be heard in this space. Both songs were made when the band didn’t have to stretch their sound into arenas that are acoustic nightmares; what sonic potential do they have revisiting a pared-down yet big enough sound? What if other bands followed suit?

The Black Keys gave a glimpse of that with their opening number “I Got Mine,” another from Attack & Release, where there were no fancy visuals, no projections. Just the start of the duo weaving an illusion it was just the audience and them, as it always was. That was an exhilarating moment.

The Black Keys are set to play another set at The Anthem tonight. For more information visit here.

The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; 202-888-0020; www.theanthemdc.com