By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer
The Black Keys have spent five years cranking out hip-swiveling blues rock and playing any dive in America, Europe and Australia that would have them.
Saturday night the Firestone High School graduates (guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney) made their triumphant debut on the stage of the Akron Civic Theatre, showing what hard work, focus and a few good riffs can bring.
“I feel like there should be Rocky & Bullwinkle’’ cartoon playing behind us, Auerbach said, referring to his childhood memories of watching cartoons at the theater on weekends.
The duo, playing to a sold-out and amped-up crowd, attacked its set list like a hungry lion on a baby gazelle, channeling any nervous energy into its songs.
Several years of hardcore touring have taught the Keys how to pace a show and how to wring the maximum tension and release out of every song.
Songs such as the opening Girl Is On My Mind were embellished with extended solos, breakdowns that built to dramatic cheer inducing crescendos and other variations that added to the original versions. The band also played four new songs from its upcoming album due in early 2008. The album recorded with hot knob twiddler Danger Mouse (half of Gnarls Barkley and Dangerdoom) is the band’s first with an outside producer. Judging from the new tunes, the album should be a little less riff-reliant and expand the band’s blues, fuzzy blues-rock sound. Both Strange Time, which had a near-punk tempo and rhythm, and Remember When featured melodic lines that were less bluesy than usual but no less effective. But I Got Mine, one of three songs also recorded by the late Ike Turner for an abandoned project, had the familiar Auerbach “Big Riff,’’ steady, stomping backbeat and soulful vocals.
Although the band brought plenty of energy, it apparently didn’t bring enough for the Civic Theatre’s PA system. Throughout the evening, depending on which speaker was closest, the pounding of the kick drum frequently popped and during a sing-a-long of No Trust, the speakers buzzed and crackled under the strain, causing audience members near the speaker box to grimace.
Nevertheless, the crowd filled with friends and fans from surrounding states, including West Virginia and Michigan, happily ate up everything the Keys were serving. They cheered at all the breakdowns, pumped their fists and sang along to the bands set staples, including Set You Free Busted and 10 A.M. Automatic and a set-closing version of Devo’s Uncontrollable Urge that devolved the song from its original taut, jittery punk flavoring into a heavy, crawling, blues-rock tune.
Earlier in the evening, opening bands Jessica Lea Mayfield a.k.a. “Chittlin’’’ and Beaten Awake did nice jobs warming up the crowd. First was singer/songwriter Mayfield, whose upcoming debut was recorded and produced by Auerbach. Her songs are are built on a base of a few strummed chords on her acoustic guitar and her relaxed singing style. They were wonderfully embellished by her pickup band, which included Auerbach on guitar/organ and harmony vocals and area vet (and former Auerbach guitar teacher) Mike Lenz, who added layers of tremulous textures and simple melodic solos.
Beaten Awake, signed to Carney’s Audio Eagle Records, played a set mixed with tunes from their debut Let’s Get Simplified and new songs. Both singer/songwriters were effective, but it was John Finley’s rough-hewn and immediate vocals that drew spontaneous cheers.