Two days before the headliner of Forecastle, one of the biggest music festivals of the summer, Akron, Ohio, duo The black keys will stop in Raleigh to do what very few young rock bands have done in the last decade: they will headline the Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion in Walnut Creek.
The bulky-named but proportionally massive amphitheater sits a few miles southeast of downtown Raleigh and seats just under 21,000 people. It mostly hosts legacy artists doing cash tours or country stars doing the summer soundtrack. But the Black Keys seem to share something outside of touring routes and fame with the young country megastars who will headline places like Walnut Creek this summer; they take the essence of a familiar, almost instinctive form of American music and rebrand it with a modern glow.
If you’re generous and play loose with genres, only two other young rock bands, John Mayer and Maroon 5, are set to headline the area’s biggest shed this year. But both of these acts are more aptly labeled adult contemporary or pop than rock, especially when compared to the two-guy-in-one-room, distortion-driven primitivism of guitarist-vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney.
This is not a localized phenomenon for The Black Keys. In an age where radio plays on the ubiquitous Auto-Tune, immaculate studio production and explosive electronics, The Black Keys achieved international acclaim with blues-based explosions about insufferable girlfriends and inconvenient love. , inevitable heartache and inevitable penance. Their last two albums both went platinum in the US and climbed high on the Billboard 200 without reaching No. 1. Last December, they sold out on two consecutive nights at London’s O2 Arena; on last fall’s Austin City Limits festival lineup, promoters listed them thirdjust behind the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Neil Young & Crazy Horse.
The Black Keys aren’t the only blues-rooted rock band writing great songs right now or in the last 15 years, really. But they are the only ones to achieve these sustained levels of acclaim and wealth. Potential reasons for The Black Keys’ success abound, and many factors seem to work in symbiosis. They’ve been writing memorable songs since their debut album a decade ago, and they’ve worked tirelessly not only to spin those tracks, but to improve them through practice and volume output. Over 11 years, they’ve released seven albums, two EPs, and a collaborative hip-hop record, while releasing solo projects and producing albums by several upstarts. They pushed their best songs into commercials, video games, and movies, and they slowly expanded their stylistic range as they grew their audience.
Indeed, their comfort zone has metastasized far beyond the garage-blues of their first outing. For their last two records, 2010 Brothers and 2011 The Camino, The Black Keys won Grammys and launched radio hits by adding soulful choirs, psychedelic guitar, R&B stomp and a bit of implied hip-hop swagger. Just like Kenny Chesney doesn’t make the kind of country your Roy Acuff-loving grandpa would love, the Black Keys don’t necessarily make blues music for those who care about Chicago’s Maxwell Street or Hound’s finger count. Dog Taylor. “Next Girl,” their 2010 anthem, echoed the blues mantra of rejecting a vulgar, dirty partner, but the song is bejeweled like a T. Rex trinket, with webs of echo and texture wrapped around the hook. It’s more the impression of blues music than the spirit of blues music itself, but not its source.
The Black Keys therefore capitalize on the powerful suggestion of the past. Their update on comfortable shapes is so aggressive that the result feels less nostalgic and simply next-gen. It’s a trick that turns out to sell a lot of tickets.
This article appeared in print with the title “Your blues”.