The Black Keys is a band that moves fast. Where most acts take a ton of time between records and tours to do, you know, normal day-to-day human stuff, the duo of Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach seem to just be at it. Constantly at it.
This is both a fantastic and not-quite-so fantastic thing, depending on how you look at it. It’s great because it means that as a Black Keys fan, you’re going to constantly get new material to consume and have shows to go to. There’s also a lot more to listen to in the extended Black Keys family, with the pair producing everything from The Sheepdogs to Lana Del Rey.
As an autonomous duo, the pair is talented and efficient at pumping out solid, arena-filling songs. And even though there was a three-year gap between 2011’s El Camino and this year’s Turn Blue, it never seemed like the band was out of the spotlight.
So what’s the problem?
The Black Keys seem tired.
As a result, it was a less-than-polished set from the normally on-the-ball duo. Not all bad (and a bad Black Keys show is still infinitely better than another band’s good show) – but when it didn’t work, it was a noticeable struggle.
Set opener “Dead and Gone”, off of El Camino, didn’t come easy. Put up against Brothers’ “Next Girl”, it was like watching a band rehearse versus watching a band that’s won Grammy’s. A bunch of them, at that.
It was therefore a little jarring to witness the division of the good and the bad, especially given the duo’s long-heralded live show and 14-year history together. The problem wasn’t the venue – though it’s inevitably weird to watch a “garage rock” band play a cavernous hockey arena – but, I’d argue, a disconnect between Carney and Auerbach.
While “Gold on the Ceiling”, “Strange Times”, and “Leavin’ Trunk” (a cover of Taj Mahal, from their 2002 debut) all sounded big and boisterous, expected highlights from singles such as “Howlin’ For You”, “Fever”, and “Tighten Up” were never really there. “Fever” in particular fell way apart at the end: Carney’s timing on drums completely off.
A cover of Edwyn Collins’ “A Girl Like You” was cool – Auerbach’s guitar riffs sounding fantastic – but also pretty lifeless and forced, proving that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. “She’s Long Gone”, off of Brothers, was, by comparison, a thrilling highlight where the band seemed to be very present and invested in the instrumental breakdown. It resulted in a hugely deserved cheer, as did their efforts on “Your Touch” and the steel-guitar introduced “Little Black Submarines” – other nice moments in the hour and 40-minute set.
Maybe The Black Keys just need a nap. Maybe they’re just going through the motions. Maybe they find themselves reluctant rock stars that are still grappling with all the success and, as such, don’t quite know if they should embrace the bombastic elements of what they do and overcompensate by not doing enough. Maybe they need to be less concerned about hitting their cues and more concerned with playing with one another. Maybe someone just needs to give Auerbach a hug.
I don’t really know where the cure for the band lies (or where the ailment even begins,) but I do know I’ve seen The Black Keys do it all much better and with a lot more enthusiasm. They’re more than capable of putting on one of the best shows of the year. This wasn’t it, but I remain optimistic that they’ll be getting back to their potential sooner rather than later. It’s not far off, so long as they make a couple of tweaks. Sleeping more is one of them.
Thanks to Live Nation Ontario for media access.