Live: The Black Keys Strut Under The Disco Balls At Madison Square Garden

blackkeys_march22.jpg
The Black Keys w/Arctic Monkeys
Madison Square Garden
Thursday, March 22

Better than: A Nickelback concert.

For Black Keys guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach, less is more—or at least it was last night. At the second of two Madison Square Garden gigs this month, he addressed the foaming-at-the-mouth crowd approximately twice, save for (mostly unnecessary) introductions of band members. But the scant words he did mutter couldn't have summed up Thursday's show any better.

The first thing Auerbach said: After opening the show with "Howlin' For You," he urged, "Let's keep it moving right along." At times it was shocking how much the Akron-bred rock duo followed their own directions, speeding up already upbeat songs to Ramones-style paces that seemed more like a dare to drummer Pat Carney than anything else. This made for a bouncy, 21-song set that covered a lot of ground over the course of 90 minutes—something that's important when a band has seven albums to work off. Not that songs off the Black Keys' latest, El Camino, need any help in the energy department. New tracks—like the elastic-riffed "Run Right Back" and March Madness theme song "Gold on the Ceiling"—were a thrill to hear played that fast, but it was far from blues-rock.

As the show went on and the Keys delved into earlier material, however, the guitar noodling and jam sessions started to emerge. "I'll Be Your Man," off the band's 2001 debut, got a bluesy treatment with a sexy, slower-paced tempo. As if Auerbach could suppress that guitar god thing that lives down in him for an entire show—something he totally owned with the performance of the Keys' take on "Stairway to Heaven," "Little Black Submarines." The crescendoing ballad actually warranted the most dramatic reaction of the night, as fans roared and raised lighters—not iPhones—in the air. If that level of enthusiasm doesn't make a convincing case that the song—which admittedly, is longer than four minutes and starts off Auerbach quietly singing and picking—could work as the third single off El Camino, I'm not sure what would.

The last thing Auerbach said: "It's like got the whole city in here with us," he awed before "Lonely Boy," the final song before the encore. More bad bro dancing than seen at a Duke University frat party ensued; seriously, have you ever seen thousands of guys in collared shirts twisting and shouting like Tuggle the security guard (a.k.a. the dancer from the "Lonely Boy" video)?
Dancing aside, Auerbach somehow needed to address the Size Issue. Even one of my new pals leaned over during the show, put his sweaty arm around me and asked, "Do you think this place is too big for them?" "No," I answered, adding that the band played a Canadian arena tour as warm-up before announcing U.S. arena dates, which admittedly did surprise some. Perhaps the reaction stems from it taking so long for the Black Keys to get to the point where they could be considered one of the biggest rock bands, period—and many diehards never even imagining that would happen.

While the Keys sold out MSG not both on March 12 and last night, there were plenty of touches of Rust Belt charm to remind fans where they came from. Instagram-y video projections of cars, open highways and water towers served as the backdrop for a stage that felt cozy, at times even cramped (Auerbach's space for strutting was actually pretty small). As usual, Dan and Pat shared equal billing, playing side-by-side instead of Carney having to stare at his bandmate's behind all night—an honor reserved for the group's two backing players, a bassist and a keyboardist. But it wasn't just the artsy-fartsy visualization of their Midwestern roots. The duo shooed their live players offstage several times, returning to the core of what some were worried they'd lose by playing a massive venue: the electric dynamic between Carney and Auerbach, and the amount of hell-raising they manage to do with just drums and a guitar. Oh, and a disco ball, two of which dropped from the ceiling for the encore.

Critical bias: I wrote a Billboard cover story on the Black Keys a few months ago; I'm all too aware of the marketing strategies that have gone into this band.

Overheard: "So what's the Black Keys fandom like over here? Dude, I'm a moderate to huge fan."—bro in sports coat and khakis, who plops down next to me and proceeds to get chatty while double-fisting some Buds.

Random notebook dump: The Keys can play the weak track they contributed to the "Twilight" Soundtrack ("Chop and Change") but not "10 A.M. Automatic"?

Set list:
Howlin' For You
Next Girl
Run Right Back
Same Old Thing
Dead and Gone
Gold on the Ceiling
Thickfreakness
Girl Is On My Mind
I'll Be Your Man
Your Touch
Little Black Submarines
Money Maker
Strange Times
Chop and Change
Nova Baby
Ten Cent Pistol
Tighten Up
Lonely Boy
--
Everlasting Light
She's Long Gone
I Got Mine

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