Review: The Black Keys hit hard at sold-out Forum concert
Whether intentional or not, the Black Keys did an odd thing Thursday at the Forum. The rock duo, doubled to a quartet on the road for extra heft, opened a little sloppy and loose on the beat, like rock ‘n’ roll should be when the goal is as much expression as perfection.
To start “Lonely Boy,” the band’s ubiquitous yowl of frustration, the Keys seemed to trip through the first few bars before moving into its organ-fueled groove. During “Money Maker,” a broke-dude ode to a stripper, guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach and co-founder/drummer Patrick Carney set forth a progression that stuttered to start like an old Chevy on a cold morning.
But as repeatedly occurred during the group’s sold-out, workman-like set of middle-American rockers, the bars and verses gathered momentum and, at the snap of the chorus, erupted with energy like said jalopy’s engine was now revving and warm: “Hey my my she’s a money-maker/ Hey my my she’s gonna take ya,” sang Auerbach, echoed by the bellowing thousands.
The Ohio-born, Nashville-based band arrived in support of its slow-burning new album, “Turn Blue,” which sees the Keys both stretching and relaxing, tapping into a swampy sound filled with Southern groove, exploratory guitar solos and intricately plotted, rubbery bass tones. Less toe-tappingly insistent than their previous breakout freakouts “Brothers” and “El Camino,” the record seemed to pull back from the band’s chart-busting guitar rock formula.
At the Forum, the Black Keys went centrist, delivering urgent versions of songs from throughout its discography, stretching back to “Leavin’ Trunk,” from the Keys’ rough-and-tumble 2002 debut album, “The Big Come Up.”
“Fever,” from “Turn Blue,” illustrated how far the band has traveled. Once peers to a bunch of post-grunge Ohio miscreants centered around Akron, Columbus and Cleveland, Carney and Auerbach are now among the most prominent American rockers in the world, able to craft nuanced rock ‘n’ soul one minute and hard-sweating guitar funk the next. They proved their depth at the Forum with a loving take on British crooner Edwyn Collins’ hit “Girl Like You.”
On paper, the Keys aren’t an easy sell as marquee rockers. Auerbach wore a T-shirt and black jeans, more John Fogerty than Mick Jagger. He’s not a Bruce Springsteen-type entertainer willing to spin a between-song yarn to shrink the venue, and doesn’t have Dave Grohl’s dimples, charm or vibe. Auerbach’s not weird looking, doesn’t have a funny haircut and is mostly reserved when not on stage.
When he pumped up the crowd with “make-some-noise” commands, he sounded more like a pleasantly shy boss than party-starter. No flash -- just riffs, solos and the occasional foray to center-stage for a guitar-slinger pose. Though Carney’s handsomely funny-looking with his gangly frame, mussed hair and Buddy Holly glasses, he was too busy banging the drums to do much else. The evidence was his sweat-soaked button-down Oxford.
The most notable difference in this tour is the addition of bassist Richard Swift, whose underappreciated work as a producer and songwriter should have earned him his own opening slot. (That was left to Jake Bugg, whose catchy and deep performance earned him a lot of new fans.) Along with keyboard player John Wood offering texture and dynamics, Swift guided the Keys’ bottom-end in a way that tapped the New Orleans proto-funk of the Meters and upriver peers at Stax Records in Memphis.
Despite the volume of riffs and Carney’s overpowering snare-pops and cymbal splashes, Black Keys fans of Los Angeles didn’t mosh, didn’t crowd surf or slam dance. Unlike the energy at, say, a Queens of the Stone Age gig, Keys diehards don’t often draw blood.
Rather, the Forum was awash with head-nodders. During a sublime version of “Nova Baby,” the arena seemed occupied by thousands of bobble-heads moving in unison. With each new song the band generated more energy and the necks worked harder, bouncing through the sports-rock classic “Gold on the Ceiling,” blues-rock clap-along “Howlin’ for You” and the sing-along “Tighten Up.”
The group closed with two simmering songs from “Turn Blue.” First, they offered a hypnotic take on opening ballad “Weight of Love,” followed by the title track. A third song, “Little Black Submarines,” also started peacefully, accompanied by a Forum-echoed fan singalong.
But after a quick pause, they hit the volume button as Carney banged his kit and Auerbach jammed out for a string of exclamation points. They were well-taken, and well-earned.
Follow Randall Roberts’ li’l edits on Twitter: @liledit
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