While most people were out spending their Friday night at various Halloween parties or at home greeting trick-or-treaters, we at Rust Is Just Right spent the evening trucking up to Portland to welcome back The Black Keys. They had a high bar to pass, both from their own previous performances in the Rose City (they even made a DVD of a previous trip to the Crystal Ballroom) and for other legendary Halloween shows (we were witnesses to Pearl Jam’s amazing set to close out the Spectrum in Philadelphia for good). “Brothers” Pat and Dan weren’t able to surpass those lofty expectations, but they certainly provided the soundtrack for an excellent night out.
At this point, The Black Keys are finely-tuned machine, with little room for flexibility or improvisation. A quick look reveals a standard setlist these days, so for anyone thinking about catching the group on multiple dates should go ahead and probably make other plans. When you’re at the level that the Black Keys have reached and you’ve constructed an elaborate tour, it’s not a bad strategy to consolidate and provide a more uniform experience, as it makes coordination from lights to sound to tech much easier. Still, considering everything has been plotted in advance, it took a little bit too much time for the guitar tech to switch out Dan’s axe between songs–though this may be because I’ve been spoiled by the lighting-quick precision of the stage crew at a Pearl Jam show. However, the guitar tech gets bonus points for providing the pedal steel guitar just for the solo in “Gotta Get Away” in such a smooth manner.
As for the music itself, it’s a new experience these days now that The Black Keys are no longer the Dan and Pat Show live; the touring group is now a cohesive four-piece, with the duo backed by some solid musicians with Oregon ties (Richard Swift and John Wood). The arrangement frees up Dan quite a bit to emote even more with his singing and providing some support for extended soloing, but it does diminish the impact of Pat on the drums a bit. There were some early moments where Pat shined and really brought the thunder from behind the kit, and he added a great touch by making the ending of “Fever” a four-on-the-floor feel with a constant kick-drum push, but his contributions tended to get lost more in the shuffle than they did at past shows.
There was no real acknowledgement of the holiday, though plenty of audience members and a significant portion of the crew indulged and dressed up in costume. For the most part, we were content merely to hear Dan yell about how it was great to be back in Portland. The band stuck with more recent material to make full use of all their members, leaning heavily on El Camino and reserving the material from Turn Blue for later in the set. The big radio hits from Brothers got huge applause from the crowd, but there was a healthy contingent of fans that appreciated the dip into the back catalog, including the faithful who really dug in for “Leavin’ Trunk” from their debut, The Big Come Up. The guys were tight, the sound mix was excellent, and all in all it was a very professional affair.
The highlight of the evening was the encore. First, as the lights in the arena went out, cell phone lights began to come on and the effect bathed the stadium with a warm glow that was pretty magical. Then the guys returned and delivered an epic version of Turn Blue opener “Weight of Love”, filled with several fantastic solos from Dan and an additional backing guitarist. The night ended with “Little Black Submarines”, which is the perfect encapsulation of their career at this point, from the ballad-type intro to the hard-rock finale.
While the show didn’t top our personal list of Best Halloween Shows ever, at least we could take comfort in the fact that we didn’t need to take 5 hours to get back home, as was the case for Pearl Jam (public transport plus daylight savings will do that). We can at least appreciate that Dan and Pat still put on a great show.