The Black Keys came on stage at US Airways Center last night in front of a light blue curtain with red, velvet stage drapes with gold trim on either side. After the fourth song, during a tension-building burst of distorted guitar noise, the curtains dramatically dropped, and the band launched into the opening guitar riff of "Same Old Thing." Behind the band were a series of screens that shifted and moved on unseen tracks and featured various visuals and projections of the performance.
It wasn't anything new -- the first time I personally saw the whole "screens moving around and coming together to create trippy visuals" thing was at Radiohead's King of Limbs tour stop in Colorado in 2012. But the way the Black Keys' set incorporated these screens, squares that would drift apart and then occasionally move together to form one giant square and so on, was absolutely spellbinding, much more so than Radiohead's use of it a few years later.
In a way, that's a perfect analog for the Black Keys in general.
Their gritty blues-rock can often sound like it was written by dudes who only listened to a lot of classic rock radio stations and old blues albums. In fact, that's the number one criticism levied at the band -- their music just isn't that original; it looks back more than it looks forward. I don't think there's a really good counter-argument to that, except this: the Black Keys do the past really, really well. They take their influences and synthesize them into crushing riffs and tight songs. There's very little emotional depth to the lyrics, but who cares -- the tunes are straight-up rock 'n' roll, and provided you have a set of fully functioning ears they make you want to move. They've mastered the art of the simple.
Yes, "Little Black Submarines" contains a chord progression and voicing that is strikingly similar to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "Mary Jane's Last Dance." Yes, "Weight of Love" sounds an awful lot like Pink Floyd's "Breathe." Yes, the album cover for the Keys' new album, Turn Blue, is the same sort of trippy visual as the Black Angels' 2012 album Phosphene Dream. Yes, the Black Keys' last three albums -- Turn Blue, El Camino, and Brothers -- all have names that have been used by other artists in the past. Yes, "Gotta Get Away" contains brief moments that could have come from Aerosmith's "No More No More" (though that one's a bit nitpicky.)
But that doesn't change the fact that what the Black Keys does works, and works spectacularly well. And all that was on display at the US Airways Center, where people of all ages packed the arena and rocked out harder than any audience I've seen in Phoenix recently.
The Black Keys' setlist leaned heavily on El Camino and Brothers and surprisingly only contained a few songs from their May album, Turn Blue. In fact, according to this Youtube video, the Keys only started playing the new album's opening track, which drummer Patrick Carney told New Times was the "only song I really wanted people to hear" from the new album," in September.
Highlights included a roaring guitar solo on "Your Touch," the very cool version of Edwyn Collins' song "A Girl Like You," and the set closer "Lonely Boy," which had thousands in the audience mimicking the sweet moves of the dancer in the song's iconic music video.
The band left the stage after the song ended, and the audience patiently played the waiting game for the band to come back for the encore. But it's at this point that the place went wild. I don't think I've ever heard a rock crowd cheer as loudly for a band to return as the Black Keys fans did Monday night. The band came back on stage and busted out "Weight of Love," a standout track where the influence of producer Danger Mouse shines, "Turn Blue," and then "Little Black Submarines." The final song contains some of the Keys' better lyrics, and the when Carney motioned for the crowd to sing along with him, more than 10,000 people eagerly helped out, belting out the lines, "everybody knows that a broken heart is blind."
The Black Keys might not make the world's most daring, adventurous, or even original music. But hot damn, they put on a great show.
See the next page for set list and Critic's Notebook.
Set list (from setlist.fm)
Dead and Gone Next Girl Run Right Back Same Old Thing Gold on the Ceiling Strange Times Nova Baby Leavin' Trunk Too Afraid to Love You Howlin' for You A Girl Like You (Edwyn Collins cover) Money Maker Gotta Get Away She's Long Gone Fever Tighten Up Your Touch Lonely Boy
Encore: Weight of Love Turn Blue Little Black Submarines
Last Night:Black Keys at US Airways Center
The Crowd: Densely packed, with everyone from pre-teen girls with deer-in-the-headlights gazes indicative of being at their first major concert to middle aged men who barely moved as the concert progressed.
Random Notebook Dump:: "I really wished they played '10 a.m. Automatic.' Then again, '10 a.m. Automatic' might be one man's pure, uncut rock 'n' roll cocaine while it's another's meth-laced garbage rock."
Condescending Judgement: Phoenix showed up great on a Monday night. I've rarely heard such volume and excitement coming from a crowd on a weekend, let alone on Garfield's most hated day. Kudos.
Personal Bias: I've seen Black Keys three times, and in my opinion this was the best of them all.
From the Hip: People have levied accusations of plagiarism at the Black Keys, but I think they're garbage. The verse of "Little Black Submarines" does in fact have a very similar chord progression to "Mary Jane's Last Dance," but it's not exactly the same -- the Key's version resolves to a major chord, while Petty's ends on a minor. And after that one part of the beginning of the song, "Little Black Submarines" morphs into something completely foreign to Petty's song. You can't copyright chord progressions. And the man with the most at stake here, Tom Petty? He hasn't said a word. I think his silence speaks volumes more than bitter Internet commenters.
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