Sometimes what makes a band great is its limitations. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have spent two decades shaping an identity and aesthetic for the Black Keys, the little band from Akron, Ohio, that could. From basement startup to arena headliner, they’ve grown steadily and sensibly while avoiding bloated excess.
At its heart, the band is still all about Auerbach’s guitar playing and Carney’s drumming. For their current tour, which stopped at the Erwin Center on Wednesday night, they’re joined by three backing musicians, but the support crew simply enhances what’s already in the band’s songs, rather than trying to push them into new directions or dimensions. There’s no synths or strings or horns to flesh things out — not even a keyboard of any kind. And it works.
Framed by an impressive wall of amps, Auerbach repeatedly cranked out memorable riffs and solos on songs that spanned the band’s nine-album catalog. Auerbach had said in our interview last week that the addition of guitarists Steve Marion and Andy Gabbard — Andy’s brother Zach Gabbard rounded out the lineup on bass — "almost sounds more like the Black Keys records than ever before" because the added guitarists cover some of the overdubbed parts on the albums.
You could feel that at the Erwin Center, as old favorites including "10 a.m. Automatic" and "Thickfreakness" got an extra push after Auerbach introduced them by saying the band was going to "go back down to the basement in Akron." But they also provided solid support on more recent material released since Auerbach and Carney relocated to Nashville a decade ago, most notably the crowd favorite "Fever" (from 2014’s " Turn Blue") and the main-set closer "Lonely Boy" (from 2011’s "El Camino").
Their carefully crafted presentation extended to the stage setup. Skipping the basic jumbotron live footage that most arena bands employ, they opted instead for a very artful set that was creative without being a distraction. The stage looked spartan for the first three songs, with Auerbach and Carney up front and their three support players on a riser behind. But as they kicked into "Gold on the Ceiling," a giant wall of spotlights arose behind them, illuminating the room and making everything suddenly feel bigger than life. The freshly unveiled set did incorporate video, but it was on a circular screen that frequently used distortion and coloring effects to enhance the feel of the music, rather than just giving the crowd a big-screen view of the band.
The Keys held back one ace for the encore. When they returned after a good three to five minutes of hoots and hollers from the crowd, a giant electric chair towered behind them. Referencing the cover image of their new album "Let’s Rock," the chair was a motif they also used in the Erwin Center concourse, where fans could pose in a mock electric chair with the same black-and-pink backdrop as the album cover. That was the cue for them to launch into "Lo/Hi" and "Go," arguably the two best songs from "Let’s Rock." They closed with "She’s Long Gone" from "Brothers," the 2010 album that has held up well enough to warrant several of its songs being woven into Wednesday’s show.
An hourlong set from Northwest indie band Modest Mouse was in many respects an exercise in contrast. Where the Keys purposefully keep things reined in and focused, leader Isaac Brock and his seven bandmates are all over the place. Instrumentation at various times included violin, banjo, bassoon, euphonium and three drummers. It’s just part of the big picture for a band whose sound is so hard to pin down that they were once called a "neo-classical emo folkabilly electro-acoustic hardcore soft pop rock band."
It made them an unusual pairing with the Black Keys, though there’s clearly mutual respect between the two acts. (Auerbach credited Carney for turning him on to Modest Mouse’s music during the Black Keys’ early touring days.) Unlike the Keys, Modest Mouse isn’t touring behind a recent album, though they did play "Poison the Well," a single released earlier this year that may signal more new music coming soon. In the meantime, devoted fans in the audience sang along when they touched on time-tested favorites such as "King Rat" and "Float On."
Kicking things off just before 7 p.m. with a half-hour set for early arrivers was Shannon & the Clams, a long-running Bay Area band whose latest album came out on Auerbach’s label Easy Eye Sound. Drawing from old-school rock & roll and at times bringing to mind the legendary outfit NRBQ, bassist/vocalist Shannon Shaw and her bandmates seemed perhaps a little out-of-place in the environment, essentially a great bar band transported onto the stage of a cavernous arena. But any way good music can get wider exposure is worthwhile, and it may well help the Clams draw a bigger crowd on their next trip to town.