Concert review: Black Keys display muscle and finesse

By Austin Siegemund-Broka

Dan Auerbach, one half of the blues-rock duo The Black Keys, steadies his guitar and launches the Keys into the 2003 song “Thickfreakness.” Auerbach’s riff dominates the track. He cuts off or draws out notes to accentuate the song’s ugly swagger, and he applies touches of vibrato to inject a fierce volatility. He shifts gears—he slips from the lurching riff into a spiky high-low pattern, then hits the chorus with three heavy chords. Auerbach knows his way around an electric guitar, and stellar musicianship like this powered the Keys’ Mar. 7 show at TD Garden. Auerbach, Keys drummer Patrick Carney, and opener Arctic Monkeys delivered highly skillful performances that were weakened slightly by a mild lack of spontaneity and verve.

Arctic Monkeys’ set relied heavily on the band’s older material, and the British rockers nailed these complex songs with precision and vigor. Drummer Matt Helders opened the set with the thunderous tom-and-snare workout on “Brianstorm.” The others pounded out jagged bass and guitar lines, then chased antic, interlocking riffs through “This House Is A Circus” and “Still Take You Home.” The band shared the stage well—one instrument after the next would emerge dominant and then drop back into the band’s layered sound. The set displayed the intricacy in Arctic Monkeys’ older material, and these songs brought out the band’s striking musicianship.

The quartet played its renditions faithfully, but with endearing enthusiasm and personal flair. This energy came primarily from frontman Alex Turner, who head banged jokingly, jumped from amps, fell to his knees for guitar solos, and teased the “people in the back” throughout. In fine vocal form, Turner sang crisply and forcefully—his eerie insistence charged the otherwise unimpressive “R U Mine?” However, much of Arctic Monkeys’ new material, including songs “Suck It and See” and “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair,” suffered from repetitive chord progressions only slightly remedied by Turner’s half-engaged vocals. These few tracks felt weak in a performance marked by expert instrumentalism and displays of Turner’s oversized personality.

In its decade-long career, The BlackKeys has moved from raw blues to more richly produced, instrumentally varied rock. The duo’s set spanned that musical history and showed off both members’ skill. The band kicked off with newer material, and Carney took the lead on songs like “Howlin’ for You” and “Run Right Back.” His beats offered little variation from the record cuts, but deft snare work captured the songs’ moody swing—he drove “Howlin’” with a whip-crack downbeat, and his lighter touch on “Dead and Gone” kept the snare pulse bouncy instead of bombastic. Auerbach’s sharp riffs rebounded against Carney’s rhythms, and backing musicians contributed bass and keyboard to denser songs without eclipsing the duo.

Six songs in, the backing band left the pair alone on stage, and Auerbach’s guitar drove renditions of older Keys songs. Instrumental breaks in “Thickfreakness” found him spilling out descending riffs and grinding chord progressions. On “Your Touch,” he inserted a high, skittering solo before crashing back into the hook. He and Carney matched each other’s moves with a seasoned fluidity—Auerbach would smoothly switch up his guitar line after Carney pounded out a fill, or Carney would delay a snare beat to strike on the last note of a riff.

But despite the band’s technical proficiency and sheer energy, Auerbach’s performance initially lacked in raw emotion. Though his ragged voice packed an impressive range, it rarely shuddered or howled in the set’s earlier songs. He and Carney broke into no extended jams on these performances; in a short a freeform segment of “Girl Is On My Mind,” he meandered through brief, quiet guitar doodles.

Then came “Ten Cent Pistol,” a four-minute tale of murderous revenge against a cheating lover. At the final verse, a single spotlight struck Auerbach, who stared intensely into space. He whined the last lines with pained desperation—“‘Cause a jealous heart / did retaliate”—and the Keys jammed the song to a soft finish, Auerbach jerkily muttering the final line. The song’s intensity was carried through the rest of the Keys’ set. Auerbach’s voice trembled on the line “I wanted love / I needed love” as the band charged through “Tighten Up.” He bawled and stuttered his lines on closer “Lonely Boy,” and the song’s faster, sloppier instrumentation matched his tone perfectly. These exhilarating final renditions highlighted the emotional thrust that earlier songs lacked.

The three-song encore brought everything together. Auerbach turned the gritty stomp of “Everlasting Light” into a ballad, complete with delicate falsetto and a disco ball over the stage. Then the pair barreled through the weighty “She’s Long Gone” and jammed on “I Got Mine,” Auerbach strutting through his riffs and Carney chugging out a machine-gun snare line. The Black Keys may have begun their careers as two boys from Ohio, but especially in these final songs, they showed their continuing maturation as rock musicians.

Read more here:
Copyright 2019 Harvard Crimson