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“Let’s get going,” the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach coolly told the crowd Tuesday night at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge, where about 400 fans with white lanyards strung around their necks held phones high in the air. He and drummer Pat Carney were there to play a speedy one-hour gig for a special “Alt Nation” Sirius XM broadcast, part of the promotional tour for their No. 1 album, Turn Blue. And, launching quickly into a pounding version of “Dead and Gone,” they were clearly there to get down to business.
Although from the band’s previous release, 2011’s El Camino, the track perfectly encapsulates the life blood of the Keys — a thumping proto-Howlin’ Wolf vamp, a heavy case of “nah nah nah’s” and a simple, locomotive drumbeat via Carney’s relatively basic Ludwig kit that is about one-quarter Gordy Marshall’s, allowing for controlled chaos and never overbearing percussion.
The Ohioans-turned-Nashvillians have become America’s biggest rock band, playing venues like The Barclays Center and Boston’s TD Garden, following the sheer conundrum of fame: how to get a sports arena packed with fans engaged around each dirty blues beat, with no light-show tricks, no costume changes, no Coldplay-esque anthems. Clearly, they still have a soft spot for the smaller rooms in which they got their start, throwing special gigs each promotional run in places like New York’s Webster Hall, where they announced a surprise show in 2011 that literally had fans running down the street screaming.
This is because the Black Keys are really a small-venue band. They demand the intimacy provided by a tight, sweaty space where you can see the whites of Auerbach’s eyes as they roll back on an especially fervent solo. You need to be able to see the drops of sweat that roll off Carney’s forehead and feel the bass drum in your feet.
The last time they played Mercy, it was 2006 — they took the stage alone, and Auerbach’s hair was to his shoulders, his beard ample. On Tuesday night, they were joined by an excellent backing band, including Richard Swift, but it’s clear, thanks to two beams of triangular white light, who you were supposed to be looking at. The supporting cast is in the shadows, filling out the music but remaining nearly unseen.
Clad in dark button-ups and jeans, the Keys might have been mistaken for PTA dads if it weren’t for Carney’s signature glasses and mop of curls, or Auerbach’s expertly snipped haircut, perfect stubble and silver hardware. But as they barreled into “Gold on the Ceiling,” a song that licks a funk fury with as much garage fuzz and handclaps as expert craft, it’s clear they are anything but ordinary.
Next came a mix of old tracks and those from Turn Blue, with the audience getting whipped into a frenzy over classics like “Howlin’ for You,” which spun Auerbach into a voodoo-like trance as he stretched the guitar bridge into a trippy, whirling solo, a red light illuminating the tops of their heads.
“New record, feels good, “Auerbach said — but not before playing “Strange Times,” from 2008’s Attack and Release, one of the band’s first LPs to garner sync opportunities. Other picks included the raucously delicious “Gotta Get Away,” which defies Turn Blue’s spacier sounds for pure pop-rock fun that they’ve “only played a couple of times”; the single “Fever,” his personalized guitar-strap glistening; and “Lonely Boy,” which he concluded by thrusting his fist into the air and throwing his guitar pick out to the crowd. If you were to mute the music, the only hint that Auerbach and Carney are playing together is the occasional synchronized head bob — otherwise, there’s no Jagger–Richards dynamic, no eye contact, zero back-and-forth. The interplay is solely funneled through their instruments, and it’s sometimes hard to image that, in a venue designed for basketball games, that could be enough.
But as the night drew to a close, it was Auerbach illuminated alone for “Little Black Submarines,” as he wielded an acoustic guitar and sang softly so the audience could chant along — which they did, in perfect unison — before the ringleader ushered in the rest of the band and dissolved into a spiraling breakdown, whipping his head back and forth and showing how, just how, a rock duo from Ohio might electrify an arena. And, leaving promptly at 10 p.m., how they also manage to control every minute of seemingly unbridled spontaneity.
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