The likelihood of two teenagers on opposite ends of the high school social spectrum collaborating and creating a successful band is about as probable as the Black Keys gaining mainstream status. But indeed both happened.
The Akron, Ohio based duo consisting of vocalist and guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, along with two touring musicians helping out on bass and keyboards and an occasional second guitarist, played to a decent crowd at the Moda Center in Portland for their Turn Blue tour on Friday with many fans dressed in Halloween garb for the occasion. It wasn’t a sold out show as probably 70 percent of the available seats in the upper bowl were curtained off and none of the sections in the lower section were completely full but the general admission floor was packed.
The duo opened the show with “Dead and Gone” and Auerbach and Carney seemed out of sync at times though it didn’t affect the rhythm of the performance much, however, “Next Girl” was not the band’s finest moment. The keyboards overpowered everything and with the guitars and drums competing against each other it was a mess.
The familiar opening guitar line to “Run Right Back” helped get the show upright and Auerbach delivered the first of many solid guitar solos and then the fun was about to begin. At this point in the show the background to the band was a projected image of a theater curtain which abruptly dropped giving way to an immense stage setup that included 17 smaller video screens and dozens of stage lights. Perhaps a fitting nod to the band stepping up from smaller venues to their first arena tour – just four years ago the Black Keys played sold out shows at the much smaller Crystal Ballroom.
The new stage setting injected a whole lot of life into the show and coinciding with a powerful “Same Old Thing” the boys set off on a marathon pace of songs. “Gold on the Ceiling,” one of several fan favorites, followed bringing many to their feet, though again, but for the last time, the band seemed out of sync as Carney came across a bit too quick on the drums. The funky “Strange Times” was next and then “Nova Baby” one of many played off their smash 2011 album El Camino. The band opened the vault playing “Leavin’ Trunk” off their 2001 debut album The Big Come Up, which simply shamed the album version.
The boozy, drunk-man-at-a-smoky-bar pondering life “Too Afraid to Love You” also bested the album version working really well live and then the slow, drippy songs took a break as the band rolled into the drum-heavy “Howlin’ For You,” completely owned the Edwyn Collins’ song “A Girl Like You,” and pulled out some straight-up hard rock with the great “Money Maker.”
What separates the Black Keys from so many new bands in the last 10 or 15 years and which, in many respects, makes them quite the anomaly, is not just their garage rock-fused blues sound with an added dimension of indie/alternative rock and maybe just a spritzer of industrial but what goes into the songs’ composition. There’s a reason why so many songs on the setlist do not get on the radio.
Auerbach and Carney incorporate varying tempos and changing time signatures that require multiple listens to absorb the song. Just when you think a song is going in one direction, it takes another. Commenting on their latest release Turn Blue Auerbach said the Black Keys strive to make every album different, which if you’ve sat down and listened, so far the two have made good. It’s hard to find similar sounding songs like what is so prominent on the airwaves today.
Both Auerbach and Carney are fine musicians. Carney doesn’t bring a whole lot of flair, his drum set, centered up front along with Auerbach, isn’t flashy, but he hits, and he hits hard. The Black Keys is a drum and guitar centered band, first and foremost. Often, sometimes to the detriment of the performance, the guitars and drums drowned out Auerbach’s vocals and everything else. The band would serve the audience well if percussion and guitar were softened a bit allowing the vocals to bust through.
Auerbach is on his way to becoming one of today’s great rock guitarists and his soloing is some of the best work out there. His voice did seem strained at times even from the start of the show but nothing a day or two off wouldn’t fix. The show in Portland was the sixth performance in eight days for the band and it showed.
Though Turn Blue represents their first arena tour, the new album didn’t get touched until more than halfway through the evening with what’s sure to be a very popular dedication song to former lovers in “Gotta Get Away.” Perhaps an appropriate follow, the ripped from the 1970s “She’s Long Gone” highlighted Auerbach’s guitar skills as he simply shredded a solo before the band returned to the new album playing the catchy single “Fever.” The clever “Tighten Up” allowed Carney to shine with his adept cadence and yes a little bit of punk came with “Your Touch” and finally the very popular “Lonely Boy” closed out the set.
The encore included “Weight of Love” and the title track to Turn Blue though both felt like after-thoughts compared to how heavy the band relied on Brothers with five songs and El Camino, seven songs. Auerbach gave another blistering solo for “Weight” but the songs’ spots in the setlist was questionable considering the slow tempo and similar sounding beat.
The closer of course was the hit “Little Black Submarines” which brought the acoustic guitar out for the first time and Auerbach teased a bit starting with a short solo before finally breaking into the lyrics. The band extended the acoustic seession much further into the song then the album cut which helped build up the anticipation to that awesome electric guitar intro. The arena went dark, you knew it was coming as Auerbach quickly changed guitars, and the full band opened it up.
The Black Keys Setlist at Moda Center in Portland, OR
- Dead and Gone
- Next Girl
- Run Right Back
- Same Old Thing
- Gold on the Ceiling
- Strange Times
- Nova Baby
- Leavin’ Trunk
- Too Afraid to Love You
- Howlin’ For You
- A Girl Like You (Cover)
- Money Maker
- Gotta Get Away
- She’s Long Gone
- Tighten Up
- Your Touch
- Lonely Boy
- Weight of Love
- Turn Blue
- Little Black Submarines
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