A few years ago, the Black Keys might have considered themselves lucky and been quite content to labor in the shadow of the White Stripes. Those days are over.
Last year was a very good year for the dynamic duo dwelling from Akron, Ohio. It was an even better year for the band's growing fan base -- many of whom have every right to wonder: Are the Black Keys the best band around right now? The evidence can be found on five full-length efforts and one near-perfect EP (Chulahoma, a tribute to former Fat Possum labelmate, the late Junior Kimbrough). The evidence is also abundant in its live performances: This is boot-stomping, butt-kicking rock and roll with equal doses of raunch and refinement.
Although a comparison likely has been mentioned and addressed elsewhere, the Black Keys, being a two-person outfit consisting of a drummer and a guitarist/singer, call to mind another beloved band from another blue-collar town, the White Stripes from Detroit. A few years ago, the Black Keys might have considered themselves lucky and been quite content to labor in the better-known band’s shadow. Those days are over. The White Stripes should be delighted to have its next album draw favorable comparisons to Attack & Release, the Keys’ latest and on the very shortlist of this year’s best albums.
The strengths and inherent limitations of a two-person band are impossible to conceal in a live setting. With the White Stripes, drummer Meg White performs her part mostly by clearing a path for guitarist Jack White’s brimming arsenal of sounds. Jack is very much the real deal; even in a big arena he fills the space like it’s a living room. By contrast, drummer Patrick Carney meets Dan Auerbach halfway; he does not play the drums so much as dominate them. Like Meg White, he has a heavy hand (and foot), but he is able to -- likely by habit as well as necessity -- keep time while embellishing the beats to interact with Auerbach’s voice and guitar.
So how does it look and sound on stage? Live at the Crystal Ballroom, recorded this past April in Portland, Oregon, provides a convincing document. Attack & Release, a pleasant surprise, boasts a more refined, textured sound, thanks in large part to the production skills of Danger Mouse, Mr. Can-Do-No-Wrong. Of course, even on its earlier, more raucous efforts (Thickfreakness, for instance) a subtle modulation exists in both volume and tempo that reveals itself after a few listens. Live, they bring it. “Same Old Thing” is an interesting opener. The studio version occurs as a mellower, perfect mid-tempo, mid-album track; here the flute (obviously) is absent, and the track becomes a more abrasive version overall, serving as a crunching introductory note -- a call to arms and/or wake-up call to anyone lingering in the beer lines. And then, only two numbers in, we behold Auerbach’s ever-increasing mastery of dynamics within a song: He breaks “Girl Is on My Mind” down and parts the sonic seas, shifting effortlessly from the brute force of a blunt object to an anguished blues crawl. Then, it’s back to basics with straight-up deliveries of “Set You Free” and “Thickfreakness”, both showcasing Carney’s near-overpowering accompaniment.
The rest of the show touches on each of its proper albums, dropping in selections from “Attack and Release” for good measure. Like any rock-concert DVD, what you may lose in feeling you gain in focus. Live, the flashing lights behind the stage can be steady and a bit distracting, almost as if to say: Shut your eyes, and open your ears -- an unremitting visual and, obviously, aural assault. No pauses or chit-chat between tunes, just straight business. Watching the DVD, the camera naturally follows the boys’ every move, and like any rock-concert DVD, it’s nice to actually see them, though no DVD can approximate the incomparable vibe of a live performance, but being able to watch these gentlemen do their thing adds aesthetic bonus points.
A couple of highlights. From the first album, The Big Come Up, “Busted” will find viewers remembering the band lacks a bassist, not to mention a second guitarist and then asking, "How in the world are they making all those sounds?" Even safely ensconced within the LCD screen, Auerbach’s slide-guitar excursion in the middle section manages to convey rawness and no shortage of soul. On “Psychotic Girl” (sans banjo and effects), the feeling is stripped down and sinister, a sort of postmodern Delta Blues snarl. Seeing and hearing this no longer surprises. Remember, not many artists -- no matter their age or pedigree -- would want, much less have the balls, to cover Junior Kimbrough. The fact that a skinny white kid from Ohio did it so credibly is more than a little unnerving. On “You’re The One”, he sounds sensitive without being slick, even (or especially) before an audience his voice has an almost inexplicable sensitivity. There is no other way to say this: Dan Auerbach is a borderline freak of nature (but in a good way, of course).
The DVD experience, in sum, mirrors the concert in one crucial respect: It ends before you know it, and you want more. Blessedly, there is more. Live at the Crystal Ballroom comes with three bonus music videos and a brief behind-the-scenes look at the making of Attack and Release. It’s enough to give you that extra taste, and leave you hungry and impatient for the next spoonful.