The Black Keys hit a high note in their career proving they belong in the major leagues of touring rock acts as the duo from Akron, OH delivered a powerhouse set on Friday to their biggest audience ever in Portland, OR at the Moda Center.
The last time singer / guitarist Dan Auerback and drummer Patrick Carney visited the Rose City they had just graduated to arenas, stepping up from smaller venues and the jump sounded evident. Though they managed well on their Turn Blue tour they fought through timing issues and at times seemed overwhelmed on the big stage.
Not this time.
The Black Keys got a late start, finally taking the stage 10 minutes before 10 p.m. thanks to what looked like some equipment issues that forced opener Modest Mouse (with nary an apology from them) into overtime. The Black Keys took full control of the evening with a great stage show along with their gritty guitar edge for a 21 song, 90 minute set.
Auerback and Carney, along with three touring musicians who add extra guitars and bass, hit eight of their nine studio albums, and of course their latest “Let’s Rock”(released in April), in an already impressive career spanning set as the band got their start only 18 years ago.
They began with “I Got Mine” from 2008’s Attack & Release and wasted no time getting right to their new album performing “Eagle Birds” and the great “Tell Me Lies” before dropping the massive backing curtain (that you forgot was even there) which doubled the size of the stage and ushered in a host of visual effects as they dove into audience favorite “Gold on the Ceiling” with that great Rolling Stones sounding riff.
“Fever” the popular and only track taken from Turn Blue followed and the rest of the evening pulled mostly from their big album Brothers and Let’s Rock while touching several of their other releases. Auerbach clearly enjoys the manipulating the fretboard and switched out guitars often, routinely throwing down solos then jamming with Carney as the two have successfully harnessed and perfected the neighborhood garage band.
The Black Keys have one of the more unique stage arrangements that place Carney and his drum kit upfront beside Auerback while the touring band take the backstage. It offers a unique perspective especially for fans close to the stage who can watch Carney close-up and actually see his face rather than the usual percussionist who peers thorough the mass of drums and cymbals in the way back.
The Keys handled a great version of “Fire Walk With Me” and totally grunged out on the gritty “10 A.M. Automatic” an excellent choice off 2004’s Rubber Factory which Auerbach described as coming from an Akron basement. Yep, it sounded like it. The groovy “Your Touch” got a rise out from the crowd and dang do they excel in incorporating near drastic time signature changes mid-song like on “Strange Times and “Tighten Up” something I have always appreciated about their arrangements.
About midway through, the evening started to drag a bit as they pulled out the title track to Thickfreakness, another “basement song” that didn’t translate too well live despite a pretty heavy Auerback solo. “Ten Cent Pistol” a deep cut off Brothers could have remained there but this simply led to the best moment of the show and The Black Keys fully embracing the joy and art that is “Little Black Submarines.”
Auerback took the darkened stage alone engulfed in a spotlight as he slowly worked the acoustic beginning which he masterfully built into a crescendo culminating in a near pitch black arena, switched guitars then ripped into those electric chords while Carney pelted his instrument. It was a moment they purposely created and they seized every minute.
Finally, the Black Keys closed the main set with the fun “Lonely Boy” the second straight off El Camino and they encored with the eventual classic “Lo/Hi” and “Go” off the new album before ending the night on “She’s Long Gone” the sixth track taken from Brothers.
The Black Keys don’t seem like kids anymore and you can tell they have matured in their musicianship and technique. Yet, they defy any description of pretentious rock stars. Auerbach’s vocals sounded a few octaves removed from the album versions and whether an accurate assessment or not, it worked perfectly. He sounded great. And, despite an extended break from the band (never a good idea in this day and age as many falsely assumed some type of substance problem) the five years that passed between album releases had no effect on their fan base as they filled way more seats this go-around than last time.
Absence certainly makes the heart grow fonder.
The Black Keys Portland Setlist
1. I Got Mine
2. Eagle Birds
3. Tell Me Lies
4. Gold on the Ceiling
6. Next Girl
7. Fire Walk With Me
8. Walk Across the Water
9. Everlasting Light
10. Howlin’ for You
11. 10 A.M. Automatic
12. Your Touch
13. Strange Times
14. Tighten Up
16. Ten Cent Pistol
17. Little Black Submarines
18. Lonely Boy
21. She’s long gone