The Black Keys are men of few words. On its second sold-out night at the Hollywood Palladium, the Akron, Ohio-based duo opened its mouth only for generic necessities (“Hello, thank you for coming, thank you to our opening bands, we’ll see you next time”) and let the hour-and-a-half-long wave of distorted soulful blues-grunge say the rest.
Unlike other two-piece bands whose novelty lies in their stripped-down sound — think The White Stripes, Matt and Kim or Lightning Bolt — The Black Keys’ complexity is not burdened by its limited number of musicians.
On Tuesday night, singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney proved this, doing more with two instruments than most bands do with five by filling one of Los Angeles’ larger venues with a flurry of intricate guitar riffs and thundering drum beats that belied their bass-less nature.
First on the bill, however, was local psychedelic surf-rock band — and KSCR Fest alums — The Growlers, whose latest installment of gypsy-influenced lo-fi seemed to turn off the Keys’ new batch of mainstream fans.
Next was Nicole Atkins & the Sea, a noirish folk-rock band who played amid a graveyard of covered-up Black Keys equipment. Carried by Atkins’ heavy vocals, but burdened by her simplistic guitar-playing, the Sea is a constantly evolving group of musicians who Tuesday night consisted of a Cat Stevens-looking bass player, a hipster-Oliver Platt drummer and a female lead guitarist who impeccably shredded so many solos that her Axl Rose-style bandanna seemed almost appropriate.
After the openers retreated backstage, the crowd began to fill in the floor and balconies, searching for a good view of the night’s headliners. The well-ventilated venue might have been relief from the muggy air outside, but it seemed appropriate that the city’s record-breaking heat wave left a humid summer night perfect for some Southern-style blues.
But the weather was not enough to transform the entire crowd into bearded Southern folk — though there was a lot of plaid — and the night remained a mish-mashed Hollywood rock show where girls in Lady Gaga-esque heels and Stevie Nicks tunics mingled with guys in flip flops and Quicksilver shirts.
The fact that the Keys draws such an eclectic crowd is a testament to the universality and timelessness of the blues genre.
Since forming the band in 2001, Auerbach and Carney have paid homage to the roots of blues by covering songs by Junior Kimbrough, their favorite blues guitarist, and organizing a collaboration album with some of today’s most prominent rappers (BlakRoc).
Their garage rock-infused blues have made fans out of much of the hip-hop community, and their albums have consistently referenced African-American culture; for example the cover of their album Thickfreakness is a photo of fingers dipping into a can of hair pomade. And if photos of the two scruffy Midwestern dudes weren’t already all over the Internet, it would be hard to guess the races of the soulful musicians behind it all. It would almost make sense for them to sell a shirt that says “The Black Keys: they’re white.”
Tuesday night’s performance reiterated how much they deserve all of their praise and the new mass-market crowd brought in thanks to their latest effort, Brothers. It also solidified their status as one of music’s most formidable acts.
The Keys emerged to a dark stage illuminated only by a white spotlight and immediately ripped into the title track of Thickfreakness. A black sheet on the back wall of the stage dropped to reveal a red banner with a propaganda-looking logo reminiscent of the Black Power fist.
After playing half a dozen more songs from prior albums, two members of The Growlers emerged and took their places at a guitar and organ behind Auerbach and Carney. An oversized disco ball dropped in front of the banner and the now-foursome went headfirst into “Everlasting Light,” the first song on their new album, a pop-fueled departure from the Keys’ typical dirty blues.
The visiting artists remained for another half-dozen songs, flushing out several of Brothers’ well-produced tracks with rhythm guitar work and Doors-worthy organ solos that gave the songs a uniquely Los Angeles spin.
Auerbach and Carney finished out the show more like rock stars than bluesmen with the back-wall banner dropping to reveal a Christmas light-emblazoned sign that flashed the words “BLACK KEYS” in time with the drawling guitar riffs.
A three-song encore — finishing with “I Got Mine” off of Attack & Release — ended a night that at times seemed ostentatious, but overall balanced the Keys’ past and future in a way that pleased fans of both.