The Black Keys at Mesa Amphitheatre Last Night

The Black Keys with Cage The Elephant and Stone Foxes
Mesa Amphitheatre
Thursday April 14, 2011

The duo is dead. That fact hadn't occurred to me until about ten songs into The Black Keys set at Mesa Ampitheatre last night when I realized the band had doubled in size after a few songs and was showing no sign of shrinking back to the two-piece blues-rock outfit we all know and love.

Any why would they? The last two Keys records, especially the newest, Brothers, are far more layered than their gritty early stuff. I'm not sure the band could struggle through those songs as a two-piece even if they wanted to, but when you're selling out mid-sized outdoor venues in a few days, why would you want to? It's not like you can't afford to pay a couple guys to play with you.

Hell, you don't even have to introduce the hired guns. Keys singer Dan Auerbach didn't, actually, giving two shout-outs to drummer Patrick Carney but never formally introducing the other two dudes who have apparently been coming on stage with him for about a year now. They may or may not be named Leon Michels (keys) and Nick Movshon (bass) and run a label called Truth & Soul Records. That's not Wikipedia official yet, so who knows.

​It's hard to believe that a decade ago the bluesy rock duo was such a fresh idea. The White Stripes, of course, set the standard and The Black Keys followed it. They weren't the only ones. Remember The Raveonettes? The Kills? Mates Of State? Dex Romweber Duo? Two-piece rock bands were everywhere.

Some of those bands (plus No Age and Matt & Kim -- duos of a different stripe) are still knocking around. But the standard-bearers, the Keys and Stripes, who will probably go down as the biggest rock duos of all time unless you count Pet Shop Boys, have moved on in their own ways, the former by growing, the latter by breaking up so Jack White can pursue his two other more traditional projects.

So, it seems fair to ask, were all these bands bassist-less duos out of necessity or choice? Two people can feasibly tour in a small car and get paid the same amount a traditional four-man band does. When they get big enough will Matt & Kim end up with a stage show something like Arcade Fire? I'm inclined to think things will go that direction for any band with the resources to do it -- meaning, to me, the duo thing is pretty well dead as anyone who can manage to go bigger will. Maybe that seems obvious to some, but when bands like the Keys and Stripes came out, it really didn't seem like they'd ever have use for a bassist. 

Not that the Keys are any less impressive now. To the contrary, as they showed last night's oversold crowd during an hour and a half set that included great renditions of "10 A.M. Automatic" and "I Got Mine" they're probably a better band than they ever were. But they're also a very different band. The band that played a very good concert in Mesa last night for a bro-ish crowd that went bananas for "Tighten Up" is absolutely not the same band I saw play the Beachland Tavern back in 2002. This is, I think, a bit of a touchy subject for Auerbach, Carney, and some of their fans

"If we want a couple guys along to play some shows with us onstage, I don't think it's weird at all," Auerbach told the Minneapolis StarTribune. "We're not some kind of two-piece novelty act. We're a band. Green Day is known as a three-piece but tours as a five-piece, and no one asks them about it."

I'm not sure how seriously Auerbach wants people to take that argument, but I don't buy it. Green Day has always been a guitar-bass-drum band -- they just have a little more of each now, along with occasional keyboard-based frills. I saw Green Day in 1994 and 1996, and I've seen Green Day live twice in the last two years, and they're pretty close to the same act they always were, just with skinny jeans, classic rock sing-alongs, more rhythm guitar parts and a slightly fuller sound. And, it's worth mentioning, they still play a ton of their oldest material -- whereas the Keys tossed in a few quick numbers from The Big Come Up and Thickfreakness last night (someone else's setlist here) as the two extra players slipped on and off stage during the set.

There's nothing wrong with that, but let's be up front about things -- the duo thing was a novelty. It seemed like a great idea at the time (at least to me) and some great music came out of the era, but it's passed. When the Keys did strip down to the two members with intellectual property rights, they sounded great as always, but it felt a little less natural than when they did their new stuff with the unnamed full band. Clearly, the focus has shifted.

Which, again, is totally cool.

BK 2.0 is a great band.

Let's even give these new guys some names. 

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: The Black Keys at Mesa Ampitheatre

Personal Bias: I'm from the same city the Keys are and I've been listening to these dudes, and writing about them, for a long ass time. I honestly think I'm pretty objective though.

The Crowd: A ton of bro-dogs. Is this what happens when a band gets played on X 103.9 all the time?

Overheard in the Crowd: "That's the beer line? Oh, shit!"

Random Notebook Dump: Is this dude behind me really gonna yell Chulahoma all night? Eek.

One More Thing: We intended to have someone review Cage The Elephant as well but hit a stag with that, and I arrived too late to catch their set having forgotten that Mesa Ampitheatre shuts off the lights at 10 p.m.. I hear their set was awesome, though. Check out the song "Aberdeen" from their new record and our interview with guitarist Brad Shultz. Yup, you're interested in seeing them at Marquee Theatre on Tuesday, May 31, amirite? Tickets here.

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