The Flaming Lips may be the longest-running band to perform during the week of concerts being held in celebration of SPIN’s 25th anniversary — presented in partnership with ZYNC from American Express — but the Black Keys, who headlined Terminal 5 Wednesday night in Manhattan, have the deepest musical roots.
In a 90-plus minute set featuring a big greasy handful of songs found on the latest album, Brothers, from Akron, Ohio’s favorite sons (sorry, LeBron), drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist Dan Auerbach gave a lesson on the enduring power of the blues, sending the sold-out crowd into near-delirium with their seemingly endless, endlessly entertaining variations on simply sinister chord patterns and brawny shuffle rhythms.
The band’s concept is easy to pin down — the guys juice the sweaty juke-joint drones of past blues masters like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside with distortion, volume, and, in the hard-hitting Carney’s case, raw power — but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying.
Opening song “Hold Me In Your Arms,” from 2003’s Thickfreakness, set the tone early, as the bearded, doleful-eyed Auerbach, dressed for work in black jeans and a dark blue button-down shirt, alternated between spiky treble notes and thudding bass string riffs, while the lanky, bespectacled Carney battered out a fatback beat. “Ah, it sounds so good!” said the dude beside me in between snare hits on his invisible drum kit. No argument here.
Given the repetitive, limited melodic nature of the blues, a lot of the Black Keys’ stuff sounds, on the surface at least, sorta samey, so much of the pleasure in seeing the band live is in the nuances, the way that, on “The Breaks,” from 2002’s The Big Come Up, Auerbach conjured a tortured guitar tone that made it sound like he was pulling bent notes from his guitar against their will, or the wounded falsetto warble he’d add to the end of lines on the jittery “Busted” (which featured the guitarist down on his knees, coaxing squalling feedback from his instrument), a trick that emphasized the sly, wry attitude behind so much of his singing. (This was the blues though, so pretty much every lyric was about a woman done her man wrong, a man done his woman wrong, or some combination of the two.)
And maybe only magic and practice can explain the genius-like interplay between the two musicians. How do they do such a good job of staying out of one another’s way? Auerbach would explode in a torrent of wailing bends and Carney would be right there with him, crashing away on the cymbals. Carney, shoulders hunched, looking off to the side, would launch into a thunderous fill, and his partner would intuitively let low spooky notes ring calmly through the storm.
Vocally, though, Auerbach may have learned something from opening act Lee Fields, a powerfully raspy singer who developed in the early ’70s when soul was mutating into funk, and who delivered a fun set heavy on strutting come-ons and stuttering horn lines. He also earned bonus points for his shiny gold suit.
Earlier, jeans and t-shirt clad Athens, Georgia, trio the Whigs didn’t show as much fashion flare as Fields, but wowed with their sneering, melodic garage rock.
But the show belonged to Auerbach and Carney — even when they had help. About halfway into the set, two members of Fields’ backing band came out to play bass and keyboard for a few numbers. The extra muscle made songs such as Brother’s “Everlasting Light” sound a tad conventional when compared to the lean aggression that fired “I Got Mine,” from 2008’s Attack & Release, but the former song’s creeping eighth note bassline and eerie, clanging keyboard stabs were thrilling in their own right.
The Black Keys may be making music based in a style that predates SPIN’s 1985 founding by, oh, 70 years or so, but as they proved last night, some sounds never get old. And as long as they’re played with as much fire and passion as they were on this night, there’s no reason they ever will.
1. “Hold Me In Your Arms”
2.”Girl Is On My Mind”
3. “10 A.M. Automatic”
5. “Stack Shot Billy”
7. “Everywhere I Go”
8. “Strange Times”
9.”Same Old Thing”
10. “Everlasting Light”
11. “Next Girl”
12. “Chop and Change”
13. “Howlin’ For You”
14. “Tighten Up”
15. “She’s Long Gone”
16. “Ten Cent Pistol”
17. “Your Touch”
18. “I’ll Be Your Man”
19. “I Got Mine”
20. “Too Afraid To Love You”
21. “Sinister Kid”
22. “Til I Get My Way”