(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 third of three stories he wrote on the journey.)
By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer
It’s Thursday night, and the 17th annual South by Southwest Music Festival is in full swing. The streets are infested with journalists, record company weasels and even some regular folks who had $115 to spend on the wristbands needed for access to the venues.
After nearly 24 hours of driving, Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys are trying to decompress before they have to get back to business Friday morning.
I meet the duo at the Roxy, where Carney’s friends in the Six Parts Seven, a Kent band, have just performed. Also in the club are members of Party of Helicopters, also from Kent, who performed Wednesday night.
Auerbach is sober and subdued as usual, but Carney is already well past tipsy and careening toward drunk. After watching a duo called Hella, Auerbach wants to eat somewhere quiet, but Carney wants to see garage band the Dirtbombs at Emo’s.
We go our separate ways, but a half-hour later, Auerbach catches up to me on West Sixth Street, the main drag.
While navigating the crowded street, I point out a store window that has an album jacket-sized cover of their new CD advertising the group’s Friday night show at Antone’s.
“Hey, that’s cool. I’m glad they’re promoting it.”
On a particularly congested corner, a young woman hands Auerbach a flier. He looks at it, laughs and shows me that it’s another advertisement for the show. He hands it back to her, saying, “I don’t need it; I’m in the band.”
“No way! Really? That’s weird. Have a good show.”
Further down West Sixth, we come across a pole with the same posters stapled all over it, and 20 feet away two police barricades have been similarly violated.
Auerbach goes back to the van to call home and listen to a CD he bought from a banjo- playing street musician. I find Carney at Emo’s, where he has completed his mission of inebriation.
He excitedly tells me that he met Rolling Stone magazine editor David Fricke. “He said he knew who we were and really liked the record,” Carney says, wide-eyed.
Later, I show him the poster- covered pole, and he says to everyone walking by, “You should go see them; they’re a really good band.”
At 11:20 a.m. on Friday, a photographer and I are waiting outside Stubb’s Bar-B-Que, where Spin magazine is hosting a private party. The Black Keys have the not-too-coveted 1 p.m. opening slot, and they are late for their load-in.
When they do arrive, they have Carney’s uncle, Ralph Carney, in tow. A member of Tin Huey, the artsy ‘70s rock group from Akron, and a session man who has recorded with Tom Waits, William S. Burroughs, the B-52s and many others, Carney flew in from San Francisco just to sit in with the band. (Longtime Beacon Journal reporter Jim Carney is Patrick’s father.)
They’ll play in Stubb’s outside concert area, which looks like a big back yard with a covered stage at one end and strategically placed bars around the perimeter. After setting up, we eat barbecue and wait for showtime. Neither Carney nor Auerbach will admit it, but Ralph and I sense some nervousness.
Shortly before 1 p.m., Auerbach writes out the set list, looks around at the early arrivals and says, “Can you stand outside and wave people in?”
At 1:15, the band finally gets to do what it does best. Auerbach quickly introduces them as “the Black Keys from Akron, Ohio,” and they tear into thickfreakness, the title track from the new CD. Carney, who earlier said he needed another two hours of sitting in a chair mainlining coffee and water, starts to perk up as the set wears on. So does the still-growing crowd, leaving the bars and buffets and gravitating toward the stage. Auerbach is spastically jumping around and Carney is whacking his too-small kit with more power than one would expect from his bony arms.
Near the end of the set, Auerbach introduces Ralph, who whips out his baritone sax and his homemade slide clarinet, alternating ‘50s-style deep honking blurts and free-jazz ear-splitting squeals. The band closes with the Stooges’ No Fun.
Afterward, respected New York Times critic Jon Pareles is asked about the performance. “They’re real retro, but they’re good at it. There are worse things to be good at.”
After the show, Carney leaves to call his girlfriend, and when he returns, he says two police officers, apparently not happy with the extra work the festival brings, gave him trouble for trespassing on the parking lot of the Austin Police Department. “They said ‘Get the hell out of here and don’t ever come back or we’ll arrest you,’ “ he says.
“I’ll be back tomorrow.”
An hour later the band is talking to a reporter from N.M.E. magazine who has flown in for the sole purpose of seeing and interviewing the band. As usual, Carney does the bulk of the talking, and afterward, I ask him how it went. “I don’t think the guy liked me much,” he says.
“I told him we don’t get high; we’re like (drug-free actor/former Black Flag singer) Henry Rollins. Then I asked him, ‘You know why Henry Rollins doesn’t get high? Because he’s already so high on himself.’ “
At 7 p.m. at Antone’s, a cavernous blues club with high ceilings, Carney hangs out inside while Auerbach relaxes in the van. The Black Keys are the third band on the schedule, giving them a prime 10 p.m. slot. They make the most of it, playing a slightly longer set to a full and very enthusiastic crowd.
One guy with a buzz cut and a very unhip plaid shirt keeps mimicking the opening credits of The Drew Carey Show by yelling “Ohio!” at the top of his lungs and pumping his meaty fists into the air. Other people turn to each other and nod in approval, and a few even know the words to some of the songs.
Ralph (introduced as Uncle Ralph) wields his saxophone and slide clarinet with a little extra energy, and the crowd gives him a big hand. No Fun again ends the set, and the band receives thunderous applause. I think the night set is better, but both Carney and Auerbach prefer their playing at the Spin party.
“We played tighter at Stubb’s, but the crowd (here) was much, much better,” Auerbach said.
‘Talk, talk, talk’
The most important shows are done, and Saturday is mostly about business. The two meet with a music publishing company at 10 a.m., then spend an hour with a reporter from a French weekly, and they are headed to an interview with a crew from the Sundance Channel — “Talk, talk, talk,” Carney says.
I ask Carney if he has insulted anyone else. “No, I’m keeping it under control today.”
Standing in front of Stubb’s waiting on the film crew, both men look tired, and they still have one more short set to play — for a party sponsored by Levi’s.
Carney says playing two shows in one day has made his wrists feel broken, and he has a huge bruise from playing a snare drum that’s too low while sitting on a seat that’s too high, causing him to pound his thigh.
Suddenly he pauses, scrunches up his face as if he just realized something. He exhales deeply and says, “Whew, we have another 22-hour drive to get back home.”