The Black Keys
Friday, May 4, 2012
Better than: The sound of a Guitar Center inside a parking garage.
Maybe the Black Keys just aren't an arena band.
Sure, the Akron blues-rock outfit sold out Oracle Arena just prior to the start of its Friday show. And the humble duo made every effort to fill Oracle's cavernous surroundings, either by embracing the all-concrete expanse with a large backdrop video projection, or cutting off the screens and turning on a couple of warm, basement-worthy lamps onstage.
But the band's Friday's set just didn't work. One major problem was the sound, which, at least at our seat on the right side of the stage, came through garbled, echoey, and clattering. Auerbach has long been a stickler for getting good guitar tone onstage, but on Friday, his battery of vintage amplifiers produced a sound approximately like an elephant vocalizing an orgasm: bloated, midrangey, indistinct, and really goddamn loud relative to everything else, especially given the reverberations of the room.
Patrick Carney's drums, on the other hand, came through thin and slappy, depriving the band of the thunderous kick drum its careful tempos require. And the contributions from the other two musicians at the beginning and end of the show (on bass, keys, and guitar at various points) were often difficult to discern -- most everything was buried under the moan and croak of Auerbach's wailing. The best moments came when he stopped playing.
Maybe it was the arena? Maybe it was just our particular location? But, strangely, the Black Keys sounded far better on the big stage at Outside Lands last year. You'd think it would be easier to get clear live sound inside a cement box than on a windswept field during a busy festival.
The sound, however, wasn't the only problem. Giving a concert inside an arena, the Black Keys tried to play like arena rockers, emphasizing the most rockstar parts of their songs: The solos, the leads, the quick tempos. As a result, all the subtlety -- the one thing the Black Keys do better than any of their peers -- got left behind. As if inspired by the setting, the band rendered tunes like "Thickfreakness" and "Girl Is On My Mind" with 20,000-capacity pomp and very little feel. And the loudness of the guitar just made things worse.
Some new songs, like "Gold on the Ceiling" and "Lonely Boy," didn't suffer as much -- since they're bluesy butt-rock to begin with, they just came through more butt-rockish. And despite the troubles, the Keys pulled out a decent performance of "Sister" and "Nova Baby," possibly because they're some of the more restrained numbers on the band's latest album. (But why, of all the songs off El Camino, would the band choose to perform the total throwaway "Money Maker"?)
Carney and Auerbach certainly tried hard onstage: they played a lot of notes, and played them hard and loud, and Auerbach ran around energetically like proper arena-filling rock frontman does. But, whether it was the setting, the sound, or just an off night, Friday's show didn't exhibit much of what's good about the Black Keys.
Personal bias: I'm a fan, and I've seen them live half a dozen times. That 2010 show at the Fox Oakland was fine but not great; Outside Lands was very good for the half the set I saw; and Friday was the worst I've ever heard the Black Keys sound.