After a five-year hiatus, Akron-native blues rock duo The Black Keys simultaneously announced their ninth studio album, “Let’s Rock,” and announced a North American tour on June 28. On their 2014 record “Turn Blue,” the band stepped away from their usual noisy, blues-tinged garage-rock style to explore a production-heavy, psychadelic R&B and elctronica trip.
Their half-decade hiatus began shortly after the record’s release, so long-time fans were waiting with baited breath to see what direction the band would venture to when their reunion was announced. Their first single for the new album cycle, “Lo/Hi,” was an illustrious, smooth hair rock jam and has solidified itself as one of my favorite singles of the year. The subsequent singles “Eagle Birds” and “Go” followed “Lo/Hi’s” lead, promising an album full of classic Black Keys noisy, rockabilly groves.
When “Let’s Rock” arrived, the record was crammed with arena-ready tracks, heavy guitar solos and easy singalong choruses. While the record offered significantly less production than its predecessor “Turn Blue,” it still felt too curated and clean to be a true-to-form Black Keys record. It felt designed to be played live, which is why when I was given the opportunity to see the duo’s “Let’s Rock” concert in Columbus on Oct. 2, I jumped on it.
As a long-time fan of The Black Keys, I worried about my analysis of the concert experience being objective and unbiased. True to form, I found a deep dichotomy between my personal enjoyment of the event and the objective reality of the Keys’ performance.
Speaking subjectively, I enjoyed myself immensely at the Columbus concert. I grew up with much of the Keys’ music, and to see my musical heroes play it a few dozen yards in front of me was a truly remarkable experience. The duo played over a dozen tracks of their older material, coupled with a half-dozen lifted from their newer record. While I was happy to experience their newer, arena-inspired songs, hearing their noisier, messier classic songs was indescribably enjoyable.
I sang along at the top of my lungs with little regard to who around me heard, drumming on my legs and stamping my feet to the beat of drummer Patrick Carney’s snare and frontman Dan Auerbach’s retro red cigar box guitar. The grind of the strings shook the Nationwide Arena and offered a unique, personal take on the band’s traditional sound.
My personal enjoyment of the event was bolstered by the fact that I had the incredible opportunity to meet and talk with Carney, the lead percussionist and second half of The Black Keys duo. A lanky and coarse man, he walks with an awkward gait, meanders his way through sentences and ignores social cues, but I was frankly too starstruck to care.
Objectively, though, The Black Keys’ performance on stage left much to be desired. The duo have been touring and making music with relatively little break since 2001, and their on-stage tenure is beginning to show. Auerbach, well-known for owning every stage he graces, seemed tired and relatively subdued in the limelight, despite being surrounded by opulent light displays and a massive screen casting psychedelic, energetic images and videos behind him and a packed arena in front of him. Carney was on-beat and engaged, but seemed relatively unengaged in the event has a whole.
Although much of their new record seems built to blare to tens of thousands at arenas across North America, the audience engaged in the band’s older material much more so than any tracks lifted from “Let’s Rock.”
It seems that their venture towards glamorous, high-production hair rock was unsuccessful in electrifying crowds like their most well-known tracks like “Gold on the Ceiling,” “Howlin’ For You,” and the concert closer “Lonely Boy.” So too, Auerbach and Carney themselves seemed most energized and engaged on-stage when they were playing their classic hits- their newer songs felt forced and soulless, not deeply emotional and resonating like their live rendition of their 2011 track “Little Black Submarines.”
Overall, The Black Keys’ return to the stage after their half-decade hiatus conjures mixed feelings: the excitement I feel as a fan far surpasses the enjoyment I gleamed as an objective reviewer of both “Let’s Rock” as a tour event as a record. No matter what direction they choose for their current and future musical ventures, The Black Keys will continue to have my doe-eyed affection- they will, however, have to work for it.