Monday, April 29, 2013

The Black Keys' blues attack, last night at Sprint Center (review)

The Black Keys, Sunday night at Sprint Center.

Posted By on Mon, Apr 29, 2013 at 12:52 PM

The Black Keys are concise on record - they write what are essentially blues songs, minus the showboating and solos that have come to characterize many strains of the genre, plus a little bit of retro soul. It's a kind of punk approach to the blues: loud, fast, simple, direct. If that's your flavor of ice cream, the Black Keys are extremely efficient scoopers of it.

It's not my favorite flavor - I'm susceptible to blues fatigue - but last night's Black Keys show at the Sprint Center was a lesson in the power of brevity: Twenty relatively unvarnished rock songs blasted out to a packed-to-the-rafters crowd over the course of just an hour and a half. The show was a win for just about everybody involved: the band, the fans, the Sprint Center, and downtown Kansas City in general. At 6 p.m., there was a line all the way out to the patio of the Chipotle at 14th Street and Walnut. Inside the Living Room (the Power & Light District's pavilion area), throngs of young people debuted their bright, new spring clothes. There were lots of white shirts and pastel-colored pants and shorts. If P&L owner Cordish Co. didn't have somebody walking around taking marketing pictures, it was a missed opportunity. The Black Keys' appeal is broad, and it hits all the most lucrative demographics.

That's less true of opener the Flaming Lips, which has evidently ditched its giddy, confetti-ridden stage show of the last decade for the darker, more terrifying aesthetic of its last two albums, Embryonic and The Terror. I missed most of the Lips' set, but the group played about 10 songs, David Bowie's "Heroes" among them. Here's the set list.

The Black Keys announced their arrival as exaggerated human shadows behind a white backdrop. Then they circled around into the light of the crowd. They're touring as a quartet, with Gus Seyffert on bass and John Wall on keys. (Seyffert is a Kansas City native, which might help explain the group's discriminating taste in KC nightlife - members were spotted on Saturday night at both Harry's Bar and Tables, in Westport, and the newish jazz club, Kill Devil Club, in the P&L.) Drummer Patrick Carney took up residence at center stage, singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach waved to the crowd from stage left, and the band slid right into "Howlin' For You" - that's the one that goes Da da da da da/Da da da da da.

Carney is a fun drummer to watch - he's gangly as hell, and he bangs up his kit - but the sheer power of Auerbach's guitar work is probably about 75 percent of the reason that everybody loves the Black Keys so much. When Auerbach plays, it's like lightning is coming out of his rig. The tone really does approach the Zeppelin-style hugeness that blew my mind as a teenager. It was definitely registering with the 14-year-old boy in the row ahead of me. I am trying to remember the last time I was as excited about something as this kid was when they played "Gold on the Ceiling." Probably when I was about 14 years old.

After about six songs, Auerbach said, "Now we're going to play some with just the two of us." (It was one of the only things he uttered to the crowd all night; Carney was completely mute throughout.) If, after a couple of those songs, you ventured out to the drink line to get a beer, you would have learned that they stopped serving beer at 9:30 p.m. - a mere half-hour into the set. Where are we, Utah? Come on, Sprint Center!

Other songs of note: "Your Touch," famous (to me) for its inclusion in Eastbound & Down. "Little Black Submarines," from 2011's El Camino, was a highlight. Auerbach kicked it off playing some classical guitar. Everybody knows that a broken heart is blind, he sang. After a few minutes, the stage went dark and silent, and the crowd roared. Then the lights went up, and Auerbach had plugged back into his electric guitar, and they blew out the rest of the song. They did pretty much the same thing on "Ten Cent Pistol" - the song seemed to end, darkness descended, then blam: Back into that bluesy hook. They closed with two of their better-known songs: "Tighten Up," which is the one where he whistles at the outset and says I wanted love, I needed love, most of all, most of all; and "Lonely Boy," which is the song that gets me the closest to understanding the Black Keys' vast appeal.

The encore was "Everlasting Light," the first track on 2010's Brothers. On that, Auerbach sang in a rare falsetto, as a huge disco ball dropped down above the stage and ricocheted light throughout the arena. This kind of fanfare would be considered modest on any other arena-rock act, but given the Black Keys' stripped-down aesthetic, it seemed damn near splashy, if fully earned. I can't pinpoint exactly the secret to the Black Keys' success, but I'd guess it has something to do with that music-to-pomp ratio.

Black Keys Set List:

Howlin' for You
Next Girl
Run Right Back
Same Old Thing
Dead and Gone
Gold on the Ceiling
Thickfreakness
Girl is on My Mind
Your Touch
Little Black Submarines
Money Maker
Strange Times
Sinister Kid
Nova Baby
Ten Cent Pistol
She's Long Gone
Tighten Up
Lonely Boy

Encore:

Everlasting Light
I Got Mine

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