Engine oil under your fingernails, sweat running down your back and your car in good working order once again.
Zero frills. A white drum kit with two toms and three cymbals, a bag of extra sticks hanging off the floor tom. A line of three guitar amps, a 100 watt Marshall and two smaller Fenders, spaced evenly and turned a little more than 45 degrees to the left. Water bottles lined discreetly against peeling monitors. That's it. No banners, no effects, no rack of extra guitars, no stickers. Exactly what is required to make a shitload of rock and roll music and nothing else.
That's what's on stage during The Black Keys' set Friday in Boulder. Danger Mouse, master of studio wizardry, may have produced the Akron, Ohio duo's latest album. But the live show is still straight up and down rock, unadorned, just like the stage.
Patrick Carney doesn't know how to play drums. He holds the sticks all wrong and misses as many sweet spots as he hits. He couldn't pound out a steady rhythm on the snare drum to save his life.
He's also one of the best drummers you will ever see. He comes out swinging, screwing up his face as though bracing for the impact of each thrashing accent. He mows through sticks, one every few songs, and absently tosses the wreckage aside. When he looks over at frontman Dan Auerbach -- and they don't interact often -- he glares from behind ropes of sweaty bangs. They must nail that drum set to its platform. Otherwise, after one song he'd be sitting next to nothing but a floor tom and the bass drum would be somewhere around the third row. There are area mics above the cymbals. Everything is amped up. He gives the toms enough extra thwack to put a bottom on the sound of a band without a bass. He hits every surface in front of him, the shell of the bass drum, the rim of the snare, the crown of each cymbal. To Carney's left stands Auerbach. He's wearing a forest-green thermal and a leather vest, jeans and boots and a blue handkerchief tied around his neck. His guitar strap has a buckle. He stands a little pigeon-toed most of the time and cranes his neck to sing into the bottom-front of the mic. His head hangs heavy and falls to the side, his eyes closed. He takes little steps in place. Auerbach's a low-ego performer, a quiet sort of guy with unobtrusive vocal lines and a fucking loud guitar.
Oh, that guitar.
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It grinds and wails through the low registers and presses into your ears and seems to widen the canals. It comes through those amps all grimy and glorious, and when he falls to his knees right near the end of the set, the dozen people nearest him damn near genuflect. He gets up, hops off the drum platform and the roof comes a little undone.
The Black Keys can get just about anyone to pay $25 to see them play. There are high school girls and middle-aged couples. Hipsters and rednecks, dudes with ponytails and dudes with backwards ball caps. Everyone rises slightly and falls hard on the downbeats. The air is hot and damp and rank with sweat. They get the handclaps going on "Have Love, Will Travel," and even the power-tripping bouncer who insisted on busting every fan taking no-flash pictures must have been having a good time.
As for opener Jerry Joseph & The Jackmormons, I sincerely hope they have all worked manual labor jobs at some point in their lives. They've got that sort of grit. A woman with a strong jawline and well-defined triceps stood to the side of the stage. I want to believe that she's Jerry's wife and goes to all the shows. When the set ended, she helped lug equipment. I know our reviewer at the Mile High Music Fest, at which both bands played, likened these guys to Collective Soul, but I got a different vibe in Boulder. Yeah, the guitar solos sound a little familiar, but you can learn a lot more from the rosary Jerry hung from his mic. He's a working man. He crunched out an intro on his guitar and shouted the opening lines of a song into the crowd, well away from his mic, vulnerable, particles of spit rising in a cloud and sweat flying off his beard. Jerry Joseph's scenes are friends lost in dusty drug deals gone wrong a quarter century ago, a family saying grace on Sunday night. He's a musical son in the family where Momma is a blues scale and Dad is Jesus Christ. He's a true believer, and that's worth something, even if an hour was twice as long as I'd have liked the band to have played.
Critic's Notebook: Personal Bias: The Black Keys kick ass. Random Detail: Props to the bro in the Bears hat, even though you will never stop being "that guy," even though you committed about eight party fouls, because you dig the music in a sort of inspiring way. And you know way more about The Black Keys than I do. By The Way: The pictures suck because I was not above the wrath of the aforementioned bouncer. I got about half of one song's worth of shots before he shut me down.