|All photos by Jason Gonulsen|
Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys was once the captain of his high school soccer team. He probably wore Umbro shorts, the kind where the double diamond logo would peel from the bottom left corner. The kind where the material was so thin, it would immediately stick to your sweaty skin. You know, before all of this Dri-Fit, breathable, comfort-first shit.
The Black Keys' music isn't comfortable. It's not sweet, charming, ironic, or a defense of anything. But it's powerful. It remembers that it's music that's not desperate to make a sale. It's hook is natural because it has focus: to produce a unique sound. A carefully crafted sound, sure, but that's because of work ethic, and not a two-dollar gimmick. If The Black Keys were a phone, the device would not text, have a touchscreen, connect to the Internet; it would do one thing: make the damn call.
For years, I did not understand the draw of this, even though I loved musicians who did nearly the same thing. I blamed my disinterest on the lack of interesting lyrics, but I was painfully missing the point. Even more, I convinced myself I wasn't a fan even when I really didn't listen to many of their songs.
Things can change, though. I know this, I trust it, and it's why I keep trying. It's why last night I wanted to give The Black Keys another shot, this time with zero expectations. The problem with attending so many concerts is that you'll eventually either hype something to death or start to not actually care, because of this ill-fated belief that you've seen it all before. Both are dangerous ways to approach art, because the truth is, you never really know where a given live performance is going to take you, even when a band follows a pre-determined setlist, which The Black Keys do.
The goal, or perhaps, struggle, these days to remain present. Opening act St. Vincent reminded the audience to do this -- via a broadcasted announcement -- before her set. Its message was to not be concerned with capturing the moment digitally, but rather experiencing it -- being with it, grabbing it, storing it in your memory.
This is important, and it's only going to become more crucial as we move forward with the digital age that sells a belief that every experience can be captured on a screen, to be played again and again.
So last night was another chance to practice living with art, and The Black Keys did their part. I connected to their music in full for the first time, enjoying the mastery of Auerbach's work on his guitar, its tone, and not worrying what he was singing. His instrument on songs like "Howlin' For You" and "Lonely Boy" was proof that he and his band are no fraud.
Of course I need to mention the work of his bandmate and drummer, Patrick Carney, who, like Auerbach, is incredibly gifted and ridiculously good at what he does. During the second song of the night, "Next Girl," Carney looked as if he was ready to deliver the power blow to bring an audience back, as if they were somehow already slipping away. That, like many things he does, can be attributed to his obvious concern for not taking one song -- one note -- for granted.
Sure, when The Black Keys need to they can throw down an ace. Every arena band has, at the very least, one. "Gold on the Ceiling," perhaps their biggest piece of bait, was delivered as the fifth song, which to me was telling of what they were trying to accomplish. Auerbach and Carney, with the help of Richard Swift on bass and John Wood on keys/organ, were so uninterested in worrying about keeping people around for the encore that they gave everybody what they wanted right away.
This made the end more poignant.
If there was a class given on how to perform an encore, what The Black Keys pulled off would not exactly be encouraged, mostly because it was too challenging at a point in the evening when most of your audience has either already checked out or too drunk to care what the hell you're doing. And you could argue that the first two songs, "Weight of Love" and "Turn Blue," missed their targets.
But then...then something happened.
Auerbach started the final song of the night, "Little Black Submarines," on acoustic guitar, playing a long Spanish-influenced intro; it was delicate, it was patient, it was absolutely not what was expected. He worked his magic up to the chorus when -- and maybe this happens at every Black Keys arena show, I don't know -- he completely stepped away from the microphone and let the audience sing:
Oh, can it be,
the voices calling me?
They get lost and out of time.
I should've seen it glow,
But everybody knows
That a broken heart is blind
That a broken heart is blind
And that's how The Black Keys won: by creating a memory that didn't need a YouTube clip or a six-second Vine.
In a hockey arena of all places, it only needed you.