COUNCIL BLUFFS — The Black Keys have undergone an amazing evolution from a two-man band playing before small crowds at clubs to a Grammy-winning rock band packing arenas.
Only four years ago, the band headlined a show at the nearly 500-person capacity Slowdown. On Wednesday night, the Black Keys played to a packed house of thousands at the Mid-America Center.
Venues and crowds aren't the only things that have gotten bigger for the band. It has expanded its touring lineup, beefed up its lights and video, hired a huge crew of techs and roadies and created a bevy of new music.
Over a 90-minute set, the bluesy garage rock duo — with two extra musicians on backup — played 20 songs that included old favorites such as “Strange Times” and tunes from the Keys' latest album, “El Camino,” that included “Lonely Boy” and “Gold on the Ceiling.”
For me, the band's latest material sounds a bit too polished. It's without the grit that attracted me (and many others, I suspect) to the music in the first place. Typically, the band's output is fairly equal parts garage rock and blues, full of grime, screeching, thumps and melody, but songs such as “Gold on the Ceiling” are too pretty, especially when played live.
I was in the minority at the show. When the band played its two latest singles, the group received the biggest cheers outside of starting the show with “Howlin' For You.”
Whether it's on new material or old, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney still slam into their instruments as if they're trying to cause damage to them. I suspect that their playing is well-rehearsed, but it felt like they might careen out of control at any second.
Carney looks somewhat awkward playing the drums, as if he's always trying to catch up with himself. His frantic playing is the backbone of the Black Keys, and Auerbach's guitar is the muscle — weighty and growling like the engine in a hot rod.
Before “Thickfreakness,” Auerbach even made guitar tones that sounded like an engine. Other riffs, such as on “Your Touch,” had audience members — most of whom had left their seats for the arena's floor — bobbing their heads in unison in a way that made them look like a wavy lake.
Fans went wild for the new songs but also when the band tore into “I'll Be Your Man” from the Keys' debut album.
During the group's short encore, people jumped and danced so hard that I could feel the floor shake.
Auerbach and Carney finished the show with the best rendition of “Everlasting Light” that I've seen them play, during which the arena was illuminated by two enormous disco balls and fans sang their hearts out.
Next was “She's Long Gone,” and they finished the show with a version of “I Got Mine” — a personal favorite — that turned the middle of the song into a noisy, grooveful jam.
The band gets better and better over time, even though the show hasn't changed much other than the addition of more lights and more songs. It's easy to compare, because the Black Keys have played here about once a year over the past several years, and Auerbach promised more.
“We'll see you around next time, OK?” he said. “Thank you so much.”
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