A clear sign that shit is about to get real: Patrick Carney takes off his glasses and gets straight to it. The lanky drummer towered over both his kit and his audience last night as he calmly skirted the stage, sat down, removed his Buddy Holly frames and got right the hell to it. He did not stop until it was over. Accompanied by fiery, fervid crooner Dan Auerbach, the guys are a no-frills, no-fuss, no-nonsense and no-breaks mirage straight out of the desert of daytime radio rock -- as if a hole in space and time had opened up only to dump two rowdy retro-rockers into the year 2012. Another good sign: When Carney pounds his kit so hard, it starts to emit smoke.
But when it happens, when the friction created by Carney's raucous rhythms generated a brief but distressing puff of grey, it seems to alarm precisely no one. Before the issue was even documented or solved, it was old news, smothered in the waves of rock coming from the stage's two core members and four extra hands: bassist Gus Seyffert and keyboardist John Wood.
"Good evening, Denver," Auerbach announced quickly. "Let's get it started."
And by "it," he meant sweat-breaking, rump-shaking, throat-burning arena rock that nods, not winks, at old-era greats. Think retrospective, not retroactive. The band corners its dynamic neo-soul influence on lusty lyrics and an infallibly smooth progression of guitar and drums that, when expertly combined, could make babies. Backed by gritty, Super 8-style stretches of black-and-white scenes, the guys reek of long nights and spaghetti Westerns, but ultimately need neither.
While bombastic hits like opener "Howlin' for You" and "Gold on the Ceiling" benefit from the blow-out of strobe lights and a double-headed bass, the Black Keys find their deepest groove in moments of quarantine. During "Thickfreakness" and its immediate followers, the guys quietly dismissed their backup, settled into the spotlight and bared their basics, returning to their origin story: Two dudes who cause way more of a ruckus than that number should ever be expected to create. Throughout a set that pulled heavily from 2010's Brothers and 2011's El Camino, the two Akron, Ohio, natives outed their women and their issues inside a stadium they made sound like a garage.
Although the duo's energy is split evenly between them, the chemistry can be traced directly to Auerbach, who riffs and reacts to Carney's set while his partner hits hard and then harder and his neck muscles appear more and more strained. Even at their most basic level, just two dudes and two instruments, the guys overwhelmed the arena with their ruckus, mixing the magnetic mojo of jukebox country with the oversized energy of a show so popular an extra date was added.
Black Keys fans are enthusiastic and unruly, dressed in T-shirts and jeans that they can move in with hair that moves on its own. During ballads, like the Clapton-esque "Little Black Submarines," they look at each other for confirmation, and if they are in the front, they glance back at a swarming mass of bodies. When the electric guitar slams into its soft intro, they seem surprised anew, even though they probably listened to it in the car on the way over. When Auerbach sings any of the band's angsty, loutish lyrics, they know who "she" is and who "you" are, even if they don't really know at all. "She" did this to all of them, and "you" never really were good for them, not even at the beginning. They dance a little awkwardly, and they clap a little off-beat, and they get really sweaty.
The Black Keys do not have sweat stains. They have dry stains. In less time than it takes to deduce what colors their shirts started as, both men had moved so deep into their blunt back catalogue that they had effectively taken their own personal showers on stage. This, as everyone knows, is the ultimate test of a good show, because if its creators are working this hard, their audience is noticing. After shutting down synapses with the three-hit punch of "Ten-Cent Pistol," "Tighten Up" and "Lonely Boy," Carney and Auerbach took their first and only break, leaving the stage for exactly the amount of time it took to lower a Pluto-sized disco ball.
As the silver sphere reflected blue and gold lights across thousands of faces, they slowed the show down to a lullaby -- never a lull -- while Auerbach lilted the falsetto lines of "Everlasting Light." And when, two songs later, they reached their end, the guys shone a different light altogether: Behind them, spelled out in illuminated letters taller than Carney, "THE BLACK KEYS" blinked from the backdrop as the duo blasted the explosive drums and eerie riff of "I Got Mine." Translate the song's lyrics however you'd like, but in that moment, years after playing the Lion's Lair, they got theirs.
Click through for the setlist, Critic's Notebook, additional photos and a review of Arctic Monkeys' set
But before the night's denim-jacket rock, there was leather-jacket rock. Although only the few frenzied fans in the first couple rows seemed fully aware of the fact, brash Brits Arctic Monkeys spent the past few years and four albums headlining their own gigs before accepting the perfect pairing that is their support slot for the Black Keys. But with a great headliner comes great responsibility: It takes both pride and prowess for a band that once headlined Glastonbury to pull off a supporting set that blatantly ignores most of its greatest hits.
Instead of pandering to their North American crowd with their international jams, the guys stuck to a set more diverse than their typical lineup: Throughout a set only three songs shorter than their followup, Arctic Monkeys traveled through all four albums without leaving anyone gypped. But it was the band's album-less orphan single "R U Mine?" that earned its greatest surge in sentiment.
Tightly wound and desperately energetic, the song strips the guys back to their ambitious early roots, back to wholehearted guitar and artful lyrics that find the everyman in the everyday. "Are you mine?" demands the band's lead singer and chronicler of urban unrest, Alex Turner, "Or just mine tonight?" All sharp riffs and even sharper accents, the overtly intuitive foursome set a precedent for brazen swagger before the Keys even entered the picture.
The band's newest single was expertly positioned as its closer, a sound summary of sorts after an hour of wholehearted rock posturing. In front of an early-bird audience dominated by Black Keys fans, the band proved early on that it had something to prove. Tucked behind a Union Jack-themed setup, drummer Matt Helders grimaced like Popeye as he proved his worth as one of the tightest modern drummers on tour. ("If You Were There, Beware," with its aggressive drum and guitar recess, might be his swan song.)
Dressed and coiffed like an extra from The Outsiders, Turner launched himself off of amps and drum props alike, sliding to his knees for effect when his songs swelled. Those who shelled out their $55 for the opener could be spotted by their sing-a-long accents, which mimic the band's real ones, and their dance moves, which act out Turner's lyrics ("Don't Sit Down 'Cause I've Moved Your Chair" finds fans pretend "kung fu fighting"). Even the group's shiest members, guitarist Jamie Cook and bassist Nick O'Malley, bopped, swayed and loosed the occasional grin as their surprise in the audience's support turned to satisfaction.
The genius of Arctic Monkeys is that, no matter what the content, their intuitive arrangements and insightful commentary position the guys as the perfect representatives of whatever audience they're speaking to -- and speaking for. Often referred to as the Jarvis Cocker of his generation, Turner demands respect and rapture for lyrics referencing low standards ("Still Take You Home"), high-school pranks ("Don't Sit Down 'Cause I've Moved Your Chair"), suburban ennui ("Teddy Picker") and sour sex lives ("Fluorescent Adolescent") -- all of which form a set predicated on the exact culture they're surrounded by.
Page down for Critic's Notebook and setlists for both bands.
Personal Bias: Arctic Monkeys are my favorite current rock band. Tomorrow, I'll have seen them ten times.
By the Way: During a previous Denver trip, the Black Keys played the Lion's Lair. "Or was it the Lion's Den?" joked Auerbach. "I think we've played both of those before."
Random Detail: All of the Black Keys' techs wear suits -- some of them with bowties -- which makes them look twice as presentable as their employers, if half as badass.
Black Keys 1STBANK Center - 4/30/12 Broomfield, CO
01. "Howlin' for You" 02. "Next Girl" 03. "Run Right Back" 04. "Same Old Thing" 05. "Dead and Gone" 06. "Gold on the Ceiling" 07. "Thickfreakness" 08. "Girl Is On My Mind" 09. "I'll Be Your Man" 10. "Your Touch" 11. "Little Black Submarines" 12. "Money Maker" 13. "Strange Times" 14. "Nova Baby" 15. "Ten-Cent Pistol" 16. "Tighten Up" 17. "Lonely Boy"
ENCORE 18. "Everlasting Light" 19. "She's Long Gone" 20. "I Got Mine"
Arctic Monkeys 1STBANK Center - 4/30/12 Broomfield, CO
01. "Brianstorm" 02. "This House Is a Circus" 03. "Still Take You Home" 04. "Library Pictures" 05. "Don't Sit Down 'Cause I've Moved Your Chair" 06. "View From the Afternoon" 07. "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" 08. "Pretty Visitors" 09. "If You Were There, Beware" 10. "Teddy Picker" 11. "Crying Lightning" 12. "Suck It and See" 13. "Fluorescent Adolescent" 14. "Evil Twin" 15. "Brick By Brick" 16. "R U Mine?"
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