Brothers

The Black Keys, Live at the Moda Center

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.

The white light made taking photos a more pleasant experience

The white light made taking photos a more pleasant experience

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.

And the curtain comes down, the lights go up

And the curtain comes down, the lights go up

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.

Review: The Black Keys – Turn Blue

It’s a bit odd that for a band that got its start and first achieved fame as a blues band, that it wasn’t until their eighth album that anyone would call an album by The Black Keys “sad”.  Part of that is the nature of the blues: even when you’re writing about how life has done you wrong, the goal is to keep it from letting you stay down for too long.

Turn Blue isn’t a typical “sad” album however.   There is no overwhelming aura of depression or melancholy; it’s marked more by a sense of restraint and internal contemplation, especially compared to their most recent work (most notably the built-for-arena-touring El Camino and their crossover breakthrough Brothers).  Instead of outsized swagger and riffs, the album relies on intimate grooves and swirling psychedelic touches.  It’s definitely of a piece of their post-Magic Potion work (i.e., it’s not the down-and-dirty two-man grimey blues of their early work), but it’s examining a different aspect of that style.

The album kicks off with the fantastic “Weight of Love”, a slow-burner that begs for repeated listens–a desire that I’ve indulged in several times already.  A ballad that takes its time to gradually build over six minutes before carefully fading away, it serves as a great mission statement for the album.  The song signals the return to prominence of guitar to The Black Keys’ sound, with three separate, gorgeous solos from Dan Auerbach, culminating in a thrilling double-tracked ripper at the climax.  While the solos are definitely worthy of being singled out for praise, the song works so well because of the efforts of all the musicians involved.  The breakdowns to the bare grooves of the verses lead into gorgeous swells of the chorus and climax as instruments are added to the mix, and Patrick Carney’s fills in the solo mark some of his finest work to date.

[There originally was a YouTube clip of the song included in this post, but it has since been taken down.  We will attempt to post a replacement when one becomes available.]

The album maintains a mysterious, somewhat ethereal mood throughout, with 60’s/70’s soul replacing the blues and classic rock as the primary influence this time around.  It’s noticeable even on the tracks meant to get the crowd moving, like on the lead single “Fever”.  The keyboard melody is catchy, but there is a slight air of disturbed menace that gives the whole song a delirious quality, especially considering the lyrics.  Though it has escaped attention from most people, the ending should be given some special praise, as it does a great job of inverting the melody to build up the mild paranoia evoked in the song before falling apart at the end.

The blues influences haven’t completely disappeared, however.  “It’s Up To You Now” relies on a similar groove to The Stooges’ “1969” (with the addition of typical eighth-note drum hits from Carney to accent the end of each phrase), and the halftime breakdown features an especially sleazy guitar solo.  The ingratiatingly fun closer “Gotta Get Away” is the closest the band gets to big dumb classic rock, and it serves as an excellent epilogue to the seriousness preceding it.  Considering how easily it puts a smile on your face, it wouldn’t be a surprise if it ended up being a single down the line.

Danger Mouse contributes a lot of his signature touches to the album, but his production doesn’t overwhelm the group.  Some of his trademarks do show up, like the muted staccato bass, the subtle organ flourishes, and the spaghetti western-influenced strings (the last of which is most clearly heard in “Year in Review” and “10 Lovers”).  But the band has incorporated a lot of these aspects into their sound already at this point, and they never push Dan’s guitar and vocals away from the spotlight.  It’s clear that since Danger Mouse’s initial contributions to Attack & Release that the group has evolved into a different entity; at the time, it was a necessary injection of new blood, as the original formula had begun to deliver diminished returns (though I believe that Magic Potion doesn’t deserve the poor reputation that it seems to have received).  Though the sound of present-day Black Keys differs in many ways from the Rubber Factory and thickfreakness days, one can still feel the basic DNA of their sound still present in the music, that it’s simply exploring different sonic territory through their own unique lens.