(Editor’s note: In March 2003, Beacon Journal music writer Malcolm X Abram and staff photographer Karen Schiely traveled with the Black Keys to the South by Southwest Music Festival in Texas. Here is the second of three stories he wrote on the journey.)
By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer
It’s a little before noon in Texarkana, Texas, and three grown men who collectively know little about the intricacies of the automobile are lying facedown in a gas station parking lot.
We are staring at a long piece of metal dangling from the axle of the right front tire. Throughout the drive from Akron to Austin for the Black Keys’ gig at South By Southwest Music Festival, the band and I have been plagued by a metallic scraping sound.
Initially, it was heard only when we hit big bumps. But the longer we have driven, the more frequent the sound has become.
But now that the mysterious sound has been identified, there is nothing two musicians and a reporter can do to fix it.
So, we hop back in the van and keep going with drummer Patrick Carney’s assurances.
“I’m pretty sure it’s not the axle or the tire rod. So we’re fine,” Carney said.
“You better knock on some wood when you say that,” singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach cautioned.
From my seat in the front, directly over the wayward van part, I am quietly soliciting any deity that will listen to keep the wheel on the van.
Luckily, Texas is flatter than the previous four states we’ve driven through, and the scary noise only occasionally reminds us that we’re in a damaged vehicle.
With 1,000 miles behind us, Day 2 of the journey is more relaxed. Auerbach is behind the wheel, and on the CD player, Jimi Hendrix and Band of Gypsies are taking us through them Changes.
Around 2 p.m., in the small town of Royse City, about three miles east of Dallas, we decide to stop for our first taste of Texas barbecue.
Rib joints are as plentiful in the Lone Star state as Browns fans are in Ohio, so we have many choices.
We settle on Soulman’s Bar-B-Que, attracted by the name and the logo depicting a smiling pig wearing sunglasses.
As we pull into the parking lot, one of the scores of 18-wheelers surrounding the place has the words “Soul Train” in big silver letters emblazened on its grill, solidifying our decision.
The commercial country music blaring out front and inside makes us wary but our stomachs force us to continue.
Just as he did in Kentucky, Carney sucks down a large sliced beef sandwich before Auerbach and I can finish our meals, despite our seven-minute head start.
“Geez, man, you finished that already?” Auerbach asks.
“Me and my brothers used to race to see who’d get seconds. So I’m conditioned to eat fast,” Carney replies.
After a lengthy break for gas, multiple cigarettes and conversations with girlfriends, Carney gets behind the wheel and we’re off again.
It’s about 71 degrees outside, and the air in the van is losing its freshness.
“Last time we went to Austin, the AC broke,” Carney tells me. “I’m hoping that now that we’re back in Texas, it’ll start working again.”
During phone calls, we are forced to close the windows to hear and over time, our natural, manly musk overtakes our deodorant.
But that low-level funk can’t compete with the stench of cattle that periodically assaults our nostrils.
At various points, the van is permeated by an odor so pungent that we are forced to look at one another and acknowledge its power.
As we continue south down Interstate 35, Carney says he feels a “weird vibe” from Texas.
Billboards and store signs touting the state are plentiful, and pickup trucks seem to be the preferred mode of transportation.
Somewhere on the highway, we see a van towing a line of four pickups.
“See, it’s so obnoxious. It’s just ridiculous,” Carney says.
By sundown, we’re illegally parked outside the Austin Convention Center.
After registering for the festival, we gather at the van so the band can set up yet another interview.
This time, some filmmakers from the Sundance Channel want the guys to be in a documentary about their record label, Fat Possum.
Auerbach looks around and says, “I can’t believe we’re actually here. It’s kind of surreal.”
The band and I part ways for the first time in almost two days.
“The van is going to miss you,” Auerbach says as I remove my luggage.
“My smell is still there,” I say.
Auerbach smiles, “Yeah, I know.”