Watching the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney play the first show of a sold-out three-night stand at Aragon on Thursday evoked the joy of witnessing two grown-up kids auditioning for friends in their basement. Between Auerbach’s effortless command of the guitar and Carney’s focused assault on the drums, the no-frills duo looked as if it could’ve just as easily been practicing in front of a bedroom mirror, simply imagining what it would be like to live the dream. Not the Akron, Ohio tandem needs to wonder anymore.
By demonstrating how modern artists can earn mainstream success without sacrificing integrity, the Black Keys have become the R.E.M. of the post-record-sales era. Years of ceaseless touring, consistent recording and savvy decisions recently paid off in the form of an acclaimed album and skyrocketing demand. Recurrent festival appearances, and the placement of its music in commercials, video games and films further broadened the duo’s reach, as did a breakthrough single, “Tighten Up,” one of 19 songs performed during a dynamic 80-minute set.
Aside from a sparingly used disco ball and flashing sign, the Black Keys avoided onstage embellishment. No extended banter, no lengthy solos, one concise encore. On fuzz-distorted material such as the stammering “10 A.M. Automatic” and angular “The Breaks,” Auerbach and Carney engaged in sonic chess matches, each anticipating the other’s moves with responses that heightened the commotion. Dirty and scuffed, grooves often assumed carnal overtones, apt given that a majority of songs concerned the opposite sex. “There’s nothing worse in this world/Than payback from a jealous girl,” sang a weary Auerbach on the hushed “Ten Cent Pistol,” the restraint indicative of the band’s evolving diversity.
Bassist Nick Movshon and keyboardist Leon Michels joined the group on several tunes, rounding out arrangements with smoother melodies and soulful touches. “Chop and Change” could’ve passed as cover taken from the “Nuggets” 60s garage-rock compilation. Similarly streamlined, the funky “Everlasting Light” glittered with Auerbach’s sincere falsetto vocals and culminated in a shower of psychedelic organ lines. “Sinister Kid” also benefited from the quartet configuration, with gritty RB notes speaking with a Southern twang.
Yet Auerbach and Carney are looser, less inhibited and more primal when unaccompanied. “Strange Times” indulged in overdriven volumes, Carney’s physical rejoinders echoing the bracing pop of gunshots fired at a close-range target. Auerbach punctuated “Busted” by fist-bumping the body of his guitar to coax snarling feedback that interspersed with steel-slide fills. The pair’s chemistry afforded even the noisiest fare a spaciousness and complexity it lacked only a few years ago. Two of the Black Keys’ signature songsâ€””Thickfreakness” and “The Girl Is On My Mind” — sounded completely refreshed, the trance-inducing blues riffs exploding with same combination of persistence and persuasion that helped the band own 2010.