Physically, the Black Keys are long gone from the dive bars they played on the way up, but psychologically, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney still perform like they’re grinding it out for an audience of three.
That tension — practically bordering on a pathology — gave Sunday’s hypnotic, nearly two-hour set at American Airlines Center a notable charge.
The Black Keys, by almost any metric (awards, sales, critical respect), have made it, but they don’t quite seem to believe it.
The pair, augmented by two more touring musicians (bassist Richard Swift and keyboardist John Wood), touring behind its recently released Turn Blue, mostly stayed away from the new album, a surprising tactic that rewarded long-time fans.
Instead of stacking the set list with fresh songs (although Blue got its due, with Gotta Get Away and Fever, among others, making an appearance), the Keys reached back — way back, in the case of Leavin’ Trunk, to their 2002 debut, The Big Come Up — and seemed to find solace in the familiar.
Apart from stringing together one terrific track after another — Run Right Back tumbling into Same Old Thing spilling into Gold on the Ceiling, a sustained high — the contrast between the greasy, hungry riffs of the early albums and the arena-pleasing hooks of more recent vintage vividly illustrated the Black Keys’ subtle evolution from the basement to the big time.
The result was a deeply satisfying night of brawny rock ‘n roll, stained with the blues and soul. The near-capacity crowd devoured it all, dancing, drinking and singing along with nearly every tune.
The Black Keys also stand apart from their contemporaries, in that the touring foursome embraces a lack of polish, at least visually speaking.
All night long, the images littering the small galaxy of screens all around the enormous stage were marred somehow — static, inverted negatives, distorted wide angles — throwing a figurative wrench into the arena presentation.
Given that most modern bands, regardless of genre, want to make the arena experience as polished and lifeless as possible (in other words, like watching a DVD at home), it was a welcome middle finger to conventional wisdom.
Such a stylistic choice also felt completely in character with the Black Keys’ perceived discomfort as arena rockers. Here’s hoping they never get comfortable.
Opener Jake Bugg was mystifyingly off his game Sunday, with a predilection for laborious, gloomy songs — his catalog features a number of feisty, up-tempo cuts, so the fixation on the slow songs was baffling. Maybe it was a rope-a-dope strategy, lulling the audience into a stupor, so the Black Keys could hit the stage and shock the proceedings back to life.