The Black Keys spent the beginning of last week in New York City, where they played for more than 60,000 people at a massive outdoor concert in Central Park with Neil Young and Foo Fighters. Saturday evening, they ended the week at L.A.’s Staples Center, rounding out a two-night stand sandwiched between similar engagements by Justin Bieber and Madonna.
It was a remarkable stretch for an Ohio blues-rock duo that less than a decade ago was making albums in drummer Patrick Carney's cramped Akron basement.
So how did the Black Keys get so big? By continuing to pursue -- in fact by refining -- an ethos of smallness.
Though they descend from a tradition grounded in manly ostentation, Carney and singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach don’t really go in for the Dionysian displays associated with Cream and Led Zeppelin; they value songs over solos and, true to their Rust Belt roots, economy over excess.
Basically, they’re a guitar band designed to pop-fan specifications, an approach that paid off commercially on 2010’s platinum-selling “Brothers” (which spawned the hit single “Tighten Up”) and creatively on last year’s excellent “El Camino.” Hooky and headlong, the latter plays like a blues-rock best-of minus all the boring bits musicians use to impress one another; it does its job as efficiently as a worker on the line.
Assisted onstage by bassist Gus Seyffert and keyboardist John Wood, the Black Keys preserved that mind-set Saturday, blasting through a tidy 85-minute set weighted toward material from the band’s last few records: “Tighten Up” and the shuffling “Howlin’ for You,” both from “Brothers,” along with much of “El Camino,” including the stoner-metal boogie “Run Right Back.”
They also reached back to 2008’s “Attack & Release,” which began their ongoing collaboration with producer Danger Mouse, and strung together several early numbers during a brief mid-show sequence that Auerbach and Carney did on their own.
“Let’s keep it moving right along,” the singer said in a rare bit of between-song banter, and he sounded conscious of what’s required to keep an arena audience engaged. (The Black Keys are scheduled to play Anaheim’s Honda Center on Monday.)
This forward momentum didn’t preclude an attention to detail: In “Gold on the Ceiling,” for instance, Wood’s organ provided a splash of early-’70s glam, while judiciously selected video images connected various tunes to the mythology of the open road.
And throughout the concert, stagehands could be seen wearing black-and-white suits -- a more consciously stylized choice than the band’s jeans and T-shirts.
But even in its moments of high-flying theater -- as when two enormous disco balls descended during the slow-motion strut of “Everlasting Light” -- Saturday’s gig had an appealing low-to-the-ground quality that made Staples Center feel like a (very pricey) neighborhood bar.
Next time, drinks on the band?
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