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Concert Reviews:
Black Keys arena transformation is successful at Joe Louis
 

By GARY GRAFF
for Journal Register Newspapers

» See more SOUND CHECK

DETROIT -- Towards the end of the Black Keys' show Saturday night (March 3) at Joe Louis Arena, just before the group's big hit "Tighten Up," singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach recalled playing another venue, the Lager House. "It doesn't seem like that long ago," he noted.

The Michigan Avenue club may be only a few blocks away from the Joe, but Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney are worlds away from those small club days -- logistically if not aesthetically.

Thanks to a gradually building career that's led to two consecutive gold albums -- 2010's "Brothers" and the three-month-old "El Camino" -- and a run of hit singles, the Black Keys are in the bona fide big time. The group nearly sold out Joe Louis for the second show of its North American tour, meaning those club days are in the rearview distance and a slew of precious early fans are wondering what's become of their 6littel band that could.

The good news for the latter constituency is the Black Keys have made the arena transition on their own terms. The music, after all, was always capable of filling up big spaces, and the group has capably worked up a visual presence that doesn't compromise its garagey blues-rock spirit and only complemented the musical attack on Saturday's.

Heck, Auerbach even still plays with his guitar still plugged into an amp rather than the wireless systems most arena rock acts use.

Following a 55-minute opening set by the Arctic Monkeys, the Keys played with size throughout the 21-song, 85-minute concert. At times, using a network of screens to display produced video material and live footage (but seldom close-ups), the effect was massive, filling the stage side of the arena. But the Keys -- Auerbach and Carney plus two touring sidemen -- also remembered how to get small, using on-stage work lights to hone in so tightly on the players that it felt like a club again, just with a bigger sound system.

The latter was particularly true during a three-song set Auerbach and Carney played alone, cranking through three early songs -- "Thickfreakness," "Girl is On My Mind" and a particularly hot "I'll Be Your Man," the theme from HBO's Detroit-set series "Hung." The balance of the show, not surprisingly, was weighted towards the last two albums, exploring the more ambitious arrangements of songs such as "Next Girl," "Gold on the Ceiling," "Little Black Submarines" and "Nova Baby" without losing the crunchy dynamics that are the Keys' long-established trademarks.

Auerbach played guitar and maracas together during "Chop and Change," while the Keys layed a fake ending into "Ten Cent Pistol." The floor crowd responded to Auerbach's call to "get a little crazy" for "Lonely Boy" with some surfing, while the encores brought a few winking acknowledgements to the size of the show -- a pair of mirrored balls for "Everlasting Light" and a lighted Black Keys sign that hung behind Auerbach and Carney as they finished the show as a duo with a steaming "I Got Mine."

They have, of course, gotten theirs with its recent spate of success. But on Saturday, they weren't all that different from the group that played the Lager House a decade ago.



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