The Black Keys
20 March 2012: Quicken Loans Area, Cleveland, Ohio
It is a strange thing to witness firsthand as a local band you have followed and championed ascends. To see the group evolve and, ultimately, achieve widespread acceptance from the masses is bittersweet. Alongside the feeling of vindication in your personal taste, there is the feeling of losing something that belonged to you, something you shared with a core group of fans. The Black Keys is to my mid-life what Nine Inch Nails was to my young adulthood.
Over the last decade, the Black Keys have risen to bona fide rock stardom. And now, they’ve proven it with an arena tour by selling out Madison Square Garden, then turning around and adding a second date that promptly sold out, too. But on this night in Cleveland, it was about perspective. And the magnitude of playing their hometown arena didn’t escape drummer Pat Carney and singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach. The latter taking the stage in a Firestone High School “Beat Green” t-shirt (Green High School being one of his alma mater’s rivals), and extending a “Hello, our hometown!” greeting that seemed to include genuine wonderment at where they’ve found themselves.
The setlist remained steady, virtually unchanged since the U.S. tour began, opening with Brothers’ “Howlin’ for You” and “Next Girl”, followed by El Camino’s “Run Right Back”. Carney’s elastic pacesetting for the opening trio of songs seemed to speed things up considerably from their familiar album versions, with Auerbach matching him stride for stride. The mid-set quartet of classics kicked off with Thickfreakness’ title track, keeping the faithful in thrall.
Although I don't think the new album's material is as strong as their previous efforts, as is often the case, it came off well in the live setting. The two El Camino songs that proved most revelatory were “Little Black Submarine” and “Nova Baby”. “Submarine” is probably my least favorite track off the new album, but its Led Zeppelin vibe translated epically to the live setting. “Nova Baby”, which feels like a late-album filler track, was transformed into a percussive powerhouse by virtue of Carney’s chest-thrumming beats.
The main set closer, the single “Lonely Boy”, had the 11,000 individual bodies churning as one, and the three-song encore opened with a giant disco ball and Auerbach in the sickeningly sweet falsetto of Brothers’ “Everlasting Light”. The fan club seats we secured were great (and priced incredibly). Five rows from the floor on the stage-side aisle, we were positioned perfectly for the kiddo to enjoy his second Black Keys show and first Quicken Loans Arena concert. And as some of the GA attendees started to make their way past us and up to the exits while the band was still jamming, the kiddo was on the receiving end of multiple high-fives as he rocked out on his air guitar along with Auerbach and danced in the aisle!
Things have clearly changed. It was a setlist for the converted with 14 of the 21 songs pulled from 2010 or later, but the deep-catalog nuggets (one track each from the first four albums) were well-picked. And the Black Keys are no longer strictly just a two-man operation, but similar to the Brothers Tour, Carney and Auerbach were able to preserve their history with in-show selections that stripped away the supplemental musicians and reestablished their past glory as a duo. Ten years and ten days since their first gig at the Beachland Ballroom, the Akron duo delivered on all the promise of their first arena stop to the hometown crowd.