San Francisco, CA
April 2, 2008
Black Keys: Almost the Real Deal
If I can plagiarize and horribly bastardize Thomas Franks’ thesis in the Conquest of Cool: the corporate culture of cooptation will subsume any revolutionary quality of the cool, of the new and the different as a means to sell, sell, sell! Consider Apple’s “Think Different” campaign. Think different and go buy the same Mac. Saturn’s a different kind of car that everyone should own. In the world of rock and roll, baby boomers often point to Woodstock as the moment when the corporate world realized the vast reserves of gold in them there rock and roll hills. Money for nothing, Chicks for free. In reality, the cooptation of youth culture and youth music had been going on for much longer. Baby boomers just think that the first time they had an experience; it is the first in the history of humanity.
You might be asking yourself what does all this have to do with the Black Keys, aren’t they the antithesis of the domineering American Idol music-machine? Well, the Black Keys’ tunes have now shown up in adverts for Victoria’s Secret and American Express- which is both a travesty and makes me want to break out my AmEx for some hot lingerie! However, it is a testament to the sheer, unadulterated, underground coolness of the Black Keys that these transgressions against authenticity do not dampen their street cred in the slightest. In fact, it seems today’s youth accept, as part of the bargain, what might have once been deplored as an unpardonable musical sin. If you want free illegal downloads, then your favorite song is going to be the soundtrack peddling Chrysler’s Town and Country minivan.
The Black Keys’ stripped down, bare-essentials, hard-knuckled, flannel-wearing British blues is not going to appeal to everyone- though it might sell underwear. The band consists of Dan Auerbach on guitar and vocals and Patrick Carney on drums. Despite this minimalist approach, the band’s sound is Big. It is impossible to listen to this band (if you can call a two-person outfit a band) and not hear a direct connection to Led Zeppelin and their legion of imitators (Black Sabbath, early Rush, even Nirvana – to whom the Black Keys owe much). I would call their music heavy-metal, but is very far removed from the 1980’s spandex of Southern California hair-bands and much closer to the Seattle grunge scene that followed, both in sound and penchant for plaid shirts and ripped jeans. It is also difficult not to compare the Black Keys high-energy music and performances to AC/DC (Bon Scott era) or even Van Halen (David Lee Roth era) or possibly Aerosmith (before they became a parody of themselves). Like these legendary outfits, the Black Keys’ first few albums already contain more than a dozen songs with unforgettable hooks and enough power chords to satisfy the teenager in all of us.
Of course, the Black Keys have only been around for about five years but they certainly seem to have the potential to reach such lofty heights, even after such a short history. But not just yet. The band needs a bit more aging and needs to prove their longevity.
Last night at the Warfield, the band was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd, despite it being a Wednesday. They had a giant inflatable tire behind them on the stage – in order to emphasize their working class credentials, just in case you didn’t get it. The one lull in the night’s performance was when Patrick Carney’s uncle came on the stage and played a flute and then a four-foot sax on successive songs. While it is great to see the band trying to expand their musical oeuvre, the flute and their signature hard-rock blues really did not mix well. Still, a brilliant performance by a band destined for greatness and a tough concert to top for the best of 08.
Songs to check out and the best from last night: Stack Shot Billy, Girl Is On My Mind, 10 am Automatic.