I hate being that guy. I’ve been that guy before and I might even be that guy again, but I still hate it. At least in my case, being that guy isn’t a choice that I make to claim some kind of cred. I am that guy, begrudgingly. So, here goes, I’m going to be that guy: I was into the Black Keys before they were “cool.” There, I said it. But it’s true. And it’s the age old dance where you get into a band so awesome you want everyone to hear it (or do you?) and you get weird, dismissive looks from people when you mention the name (“never heard of them”). Then you watch them get bigger over the years and next thing you know the same people who were dismissing you are now self professed “huge fans.” This whole cycle came to an almost too obvious, but somehow revelatory, crescendo for me at last night’s Black Keys show at Ft. Lauderdale’s BB&T Center.
I don’t normally do arena shows, but when I do, it’s the Black Keys (stay bluesy, my friends). Arenas are just too big for what I appreciate in live music, which boils down to intimacy. I understand the big spectacle of large venues. I’ve certainly been wowed by it in the past, most notably in mind, to this day, is U2’s Zoo TV tour, which managed to be a rock concert with a postmodern commentary on the nature of rock stars, the media, politics, etc. But that’s rare, in my eyes. And I’ll use the last and only other time I saw the Black Keys live as a counterpoint. It was in 2010, about a week before their album Brothers was released. It was at the Fillmore in Miami Beach which is a perfect sized venue in my opinion. At this point, they had not started playing with supporting players, so it was just Dan and Patrick on stage. And it was intense and explosive and exuberant. That night they played like they could not be contained and it was clearly true because after that, they blew up. Last night, I witnessed what that means and I’m not sure it’s for me.
Full disclosure, it probably didn’t help that my seats were not great. I had a side view of a stage that was clearly set up for front view (shocking, I know). Right off, I didn’t feel the intimacy I crave. And as I looked down at the general admission floor, I was jealous but also wondering if those people down there were real fans. One thing about the crowds that I noticed was the overwhelming variety of people. Usually, you go to a show, you see certain types and it sort of makes sense and fits in some neat, ridiculous little box we make up when we’re trying to be different from everyone else by being exactly the same as the people in our specific little boxes. It’s a weird dynamic. But at this arena, there were no little boxes. This may as well have been an airport where all the boxes were just emptied out, like crayons, all mixing together like metaphors that cannot be contained. And I don’t say this as a negative, but there are two sides to this much diversity in a crowd. On the one hand, it’s beautiful that such a mixed group of people can all come together to experience music. It speaks to the power of that music. On the other, it might mean that the music is much more generic. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, either, but it made me feel more like that guy, and I’ve already said I don’t like being that guy.
Of course, my concerns got taken down a few notches once the band started playing. They played a set that was mainly from El Camino and Brothers, which the crowd was singing along and dancing to. It was strange, however, to see a crowd that large singing the “dada dada da” part of “Howlin For You” like it was a soccer game. But, I was very happy to see that the song where the energy seemed to crescendo and feature some flaming guitar work by Dan was “She’s Long Gone” which is a favorite of mine off my favorite album. That was also a moment where I felt like it was ok that this wasn’t really “my band” anymore. They had never been shy about wanting to be this big, and now they were and that was fine.
By far, the best moment of the night was when they played an older song, the oldest they played. It was the only song they played off of The Big Come Up, their first album. The traditional blues song “Leavin Trunk” has always been one of my all time favorites, and they had apparently never played it live until just a few weeks ago. Hearing them play this with a bass player and an organ was thrilling. It was a much smoother take than the garage style of the album version. It really brought home how much Dan’s vocal delivery has changed over the years. On the album, he goes for rough, but this new take on the song is almost crooning. It was much more late night R&B session than backwoods blues in some shed. And what’s more, the crowd loved it. That a massive, mainstream leaning crowd can react that way to a traditional blues song, played in a pretty straightforward manner is a great thing. If that’s what Dan and Patrick are going to do with their fame, then it’s worth it. I am now hoping they soon put out a blues album with a full band.
At first I was surprised they only played 4 songs off their latest album, Turn Blue. But, the reality is that most of those songs are actually not very commercial when you think about it. They’re mostly introspective downers. Still, it’s weird to see so few songs from the album that the tour is named and themed for. And it was during one of the new songs, their most commercial song, “Gotta Get Away” that I had to laugh at a moment of utter pretension that was demonstrative of where this band has gone and how far they are from what they were. The band was playing, jamming pretty hard, actually. It’s not my favorite song, but it is infectious. Then, while they are still playing, a roadie calmly walks up next to Dan, holding something on a stand, which he places next to him and walks off. Within seconds, that slide guitar solo comes up and Dan furiously plays the maybe 20-second slide riff on what turns out to be a mini lap steel guitar on the stand, then goes right on playing the rest of the song on the guitar that he was playing before, while the roadie comes back and takes the lap steel away as nonchalantly as he placed there. Now, I’m no guitar genius, but I’m pretty sure that that the solo could have been done on the same guitar he was playing for the rest of the song or at the very least, the lap steel could have just been there on the stage already, instead of having the roadie deliver it and pick it up. For a band that used to just be two guys that sounded like they didn’t need anybody, this just seems ridiculous. And maybe it’s done with a certain amount of cheekiness, but I kind of doubt it. I really hope it’s not a sign of them descending into superfluous excess (maybe that’s the title of their next album?).
Overall, though, the band was more than solid. Nobody can doubt this band’s playing ability. Patrick Carney, particularly, was on fire. I’ve read interviews where he’s said he’s not a very good drummer and that it takes a lot for him to prepare. That may be true, but whatever it is he does to rehearse, it works. If he missed any beats, he missed them at the right time. And Dan Auerbach is one of the most important guitar players of the last several decades, I think, because he’s never been one to give in to flash. Especially on the early albums, his playing is about rhythm and groove rather than solos and complicated leads. But it’s never been because of any lack of ability and he proves that when you see him live. But even his flashier playing, like in the closer, “Little Black Submarines,” stays in the groove and is about the song, rather than his ego. That’s a huge shift in focus for big rock bands, which is what they are now. It will be interesting to see how that influences future generations.
I’m of two minds on the show. My experience was not the best, but I can see how the rest of the crowd really enjoyed it. One thing about being that guy is that the temptation to call the band sellouts nags at you. But I hate that term more than I hate being that guy, and the truth is, I’m not sure it even makes any sense with The Black Keys anyway. As I said, their latest album is not really very commercial, even though they are now huge. That speaks volumes. Having said that, though, their latest album is the most distant from their original sound and it’s my least favorite. So, maybe this is where we part ways? I don’t know. I doubt that. I doubt that they’ll be playing small venues ever again, either, but you never know. I can say for sure, though, that I won’t be seeing them, or likely anyone else, live again at an arena. Maybe that’s because I’m like Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon when it comes to this, but it’s just not for me.