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The Black Keys

(2 Nov 2005: Irving Plaza — New York)

She had never even heard of the Black Keys, not until I came into her apartment with a copy of thickfreakness in my hand. I raved about their live show—I had seen them twice at the Austin City Limits festival—and a week later she showed up at my work with two tickets in hand, as excited to give them as I was to receive. She was my girlfriend then.


Tonight she is not.


Forty-eight hours ago I wasn’t sure that I’d even be here. She had bought the tickets after all, and I felt it would only be right if she went, alone or with someone else. She didn’t want to go (alone or with someone else) because she associates the band’s music so closely with me, that night, and our diseased relationship.


And it didn’t promise to be a light-hearted evening. The sound of the music would pour salt in our open wounds as we stood awkwardly next to one another, afraid to look the other in the eyes.


But here we sit on the 6 train, together for the first time since “the talk.” I struggle to converse with a girl who I met a few years too early, one I couldn’t make things work with as a result.


Anybody who listens to the Black Keys understands that drinking anything besides cheap beer or whiskey at one of their shows is to commit a sort of venial sin. As we arrive, I opt for one of each. When the lights go out and all that can be seen is the glimmering gold strand backdrop, I feel like I’m about to watch a junior high talent show. The crowd erupts as the two boys from Ohio take their position. They play a short intro before busting into “No Trust”. Hoots and hollers linger over the crowd and I see that we are not the only two handling two drinks apiece.


“Thickfreakness” is just as gritty and warbled live as on record. Sticky and hot, the song practically steams from the speakers. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Dan Auerbach sings like a god. He sings like he’s possessed by an old blues man who has been smoking a carton of Winstons a week for forty years. And his wailing guitar gives his voice wings. He summons his power from the dark corridors of his memory and his lyrics reflect it: “And I’ll hold you near/ and I’ll whisper in your ear/ I’ll take your hand/ And I’ll make you understand.”


I can only imagine how it feels when a room cheers after you spill your heart out like a bucket of warm water on a dirty floor. It’s probably something between vindication and lingering disappointment.


Patrick Carney drums with such ferocity I can see sweat flying from his frame—and I’m 40 feet away. Though he doesn’t make eye contact with Auerbach all night, these two aren’t only on the same page, their instruments are singing the sentences in complete unison. After every song Carney takes both of his sticks in one hand and bows his head to examine his quivering cymbals, placing an affectionate hand on them, like they’re a shaking child.


When the beginning drums of “Set You Free” comes running through the room like the bulls in Pamplona, the place starts moving. At each of the three shows I’ve seen the band play I have observed an interesting phenomenon: they get every guy in the joint dancing. We aren’t talking the foxtrot, or anything special like that, but each fella in the room is instantly armed with a distinct swagger. Whether dancing with a bunch of his fraternity brothers or just in place, I see a jolt of electricity in the feet of every Y-chromosome carrier in the place. Me? I happen to have an excellent partner.


We dance together for the last third of the show like we were in some sort of dance-off and we really want the trophy. She and I later joke that anyone who can’t let go and dance to the Keys must not know how to screw. On the way out I mention that everyone around us was staring and making comments.


“Really,” she says, “how come?”


“Because we were having the most fun,” I reply.


As I walk her to a cab, a little drunk, energized from a great show, my mind begins racing. I want to tell her how much I miss her. I want to tell her that I wouldn’t have had more fun with anyone else at that show. I want to tell her that she means more to me now, after tonight, than she ever had when we were dating.


She smiles, shakes her head, and drops a lingering kiss on my cheek. My whole face feels warm as she jumps, alone, into the back of the cab.


There is nothing left to say.

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