As the Black Keys finished the second show of their North American tour at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, with Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney steaming through “I Got Mine,” a lighted sign bearing the band’s name descended from the lighting rig — just like you see at a lot of big arena rock shows.
Of course, this WAS a big arena rock show, the Keys’ new home thanks to the success of its last two albums and a run of hit singles. But in the duo’s hands the sign, as well as the two mirror balls deployed two songs earlier during “Everlasting Light,” were winking nods to the size of the venue, and an acknowledgement that after a decade and seven albums, Auerbach and Carney are indeed getting theirs.
On their own terms, however.
The Keys’ move to arenas was greeted with expected concern and skepticism from longtime fans recalling basement and small club gigs, but Auerbach and Carney are taking the plunge without losing what got them there. The music, of course, has always been capable of filling large spaces, and is even more so now thanks to more ambitious arrangements and the presence of two backing musicians to muscle up the sound. But the fun of the 21-song, 85-minute show was watching the Keys play with that size and ultimately using it to complement rather than compromise its garage-y blues-rock aesthetic.
Heck, Auerbach even played with his guitar still plugged into the amps rather than moving to the wireless systems most arena bands employ.
At times, using a network of screens to display produced video material and live footage (but seldom close-ups), the effect was huge, filling the stage side of the nearly sold-out arena. But the Keys ratcheted things down as well, using on-stage work lights to hone in so tightly on the players that it felt like a club again, just with a bigger sound system. And when Auerbach and Carney cranked through three early songs — “Thickfreakness,” “Girl is On My Mind” and a particularly hot “I’ll Be Your Man” — as a duo, it was clear they had not given anything over to their new trappings.
The Keys delivered at least one song from each of its albums, as well as its “Twilight” contribution “Chop and Change,” during which Auerbach played guitar and maracas at the same time. But the focus was, not surprisingly, on 2010’s Grammy Award-winning “Brothers” and the three-month-old “El Camino,” and while songs such as “Next Girl,” “Gold on the Ceiling,” “Little Black Submarines” and “Nova Baby” were a bit more sophisticated and polished, but they still had plenty of raw crunch. The Keys laid a fake ending into “Ten Cent Pistol,” while fans on floor responded to Auerbach’s call to “get a little crazy” for “Lonely Boy” with some crowd surfing.
Before “Tighten Up,” Auerbach — who later checked out the Dirtbombs at the Blowout festival in nearby Hamtramck — recalled playing a small Detroit club, located just a few blocks away from the arena, early in the Keys’ career. “It doesn’t seem like that long ago,” he said. At this juncture, of course, it felt worlds away, but it was gratifying to see the Keys aren’t all that different than they were back then.
The Black Keys’ Set List (with two additional backing band members unless noted):
Howlin’ For You
Run Right Back
Same Old Thing
Dead and Gone
Gold on the Ceiling
Thickfreakness (Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney only)
Girl is On My Mind (Auerbach and Carney)
I’ll Be Your Man (Auerbach and Carney)
Little Black Submarines
Chop and Change
Ten Cent Pistol
She’s Long Gone
I Got Mine (Auerbach and Carney)