Rock Roundup

The Black Keys, Rock Music’s Arena-packing Purists

The Ohio natives evolve, but stay true to their bluesy roots

By - Sep 8th, 2014 01:57 pm
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The Black Keys (photos by Kara Murphy)

The Black Keys (photos by Kara Murphy)

Week’s Top Show: The Black Keys at BMO Harris Bradley Center, Tuesday, September 9

The worst kind of rabid music fan insists that this rock band or that blues singer, this folkie songwriter or that hip-hop act, became artistically useless the moment they sold more than a thousand records or played for more than two hundred people at a time.

(Your own local rabid music fan’s sales and attendance figures may vary.)

That guy is wrong if he makes such claims about The Black Keys. Still, there is something odd and unlikely about the rise of the Keys. Two Akron, Ohio scrappers — who, a decade ago, would have luxuriated on a shoestring budget — have become Nashville-residing, Grammy-winning, arena-filling stars.

Not unlike the White Stripes — with whom they were and are often compared, even by former Stripes frontman Jack WhiteDan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have adjusted to the big time without making fundamental changes to their sound: although more smoothly produced (with guys like Danger Mouse), their later albums sit along the same continuum as the earlier ones.

The most recent, 2014’s Turn Blue, is a little groovier, in the funk and psychedelic senses of the word, than its predecessors, but there are still connections between its spaciness and the playful, bluesy, twangy desperation of Rubber Factory, which is what The Black Keys sounded like (and where they recorded) ten years ago.

Back then, Auerbach and Carney weren’t in-demand producers whose names entice the curious and move units. As frontman and singer, Auerbach has almost inevitably gotten gigs of the Lana Del Rey and Nikki Lane sort — but drummer Carney is gaining momentum with the likes of The Black Lips.

Overall, then, the success of the Black Keys should be regarded by every kind of music fan, rabid or not, as heartening. Better them than nearly all the alternatives likely to get booked at the Bradley Center.

Wednesday, September 10: Natalie Merchant at Pabst Theater

In late July, when this show was originally scheduled to happen, it was my top pick, and it came close to grabbing the spot a second time, because Natalie Merchant is one of the strongest, surest adult-pop frontwomen since Stevie Nicks, and she doesn’t have the elder’s scarf-festooned mysticism or California cocoon.

Instead, at the head of 10,000 Maniacs and during a subsequent solo career, Merchant has shown admirable containment and restraint, allowing for subtler, and often darker, emotional shades than pop usually wants. Her latest LP, this year’s Natalie Merchant, isn’t the restart the title implies; it’s a reaffirmation of her methods.

Friday, September 12: Buzzcocks at Rave

In early 1977, Buzzcocks issued their first EP, Spiral Scratch, on their own label and used money borrowed from frontman Pete Shelley’s dad. Earlier this year, they funded their ninth LP, The Way, with money pledged by fans. (The album is due for a wider release in November.)

In between, they raised Manchester’s height on the map of England’s musical topography, influenced a spate of rock nerds from Bob Mould to Rivers Cuomo, burned out, broke up, reformed, changed lineups and somehow remained true both to their punk independence and to their geek-rock quirkiness.

Saturday, September 13: Reverend Horton Heat at Rave

The Big Bopper’s leering phrase “wiggle in the walk,” the brassy red shade that Christina Hendricks favors for her hair, the rubber-laying roar of a 1957 Thunderbird, the bite of the evening’s first cigarette and first shot: that’s basically the mix of sensations captured in Reverend Horton Heat’s “psychobilly” form of rockabilly.

At least that’s the mix when RHH and its frontman, Jim Heath (also known as “Reverend Horton Heat”), are running on leaded gas and cooking with punk energy. After the 1990s, that wasn’t guaranteed, but it must be said that this year’s Rev revives the power, renews the faith and applied other religious metaphors to some wonderfully sinful music.

Monday, September 15: La Luz at Cactus Club

Let’s just say that after attending Reverend Horton Heat’s show (see above) over the weekend, you feel the desire for more of that rockabilly and/or psychobilly goodness (which is to say, badness). Yet you might also want something not quite the same. And you want it soon, like now, daddy-o!

If you can hop on one foot while putting up with the itch, then the four-woman Seattle group called La Luz will make the scratching sweet. Started just a couple years ago by veteran musician Shana Cleveland, “The Light” has a dreamy, creamy angle on girlie surf music that is as tasty and welcome as sherbet for dessert.

From the quartet’s first LP, last year’s It’s Alive:

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