By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer
Patrick Carney, the drumming half of the gut-bucket garage blues rock duo The Black Keys, has a lot on his mind.
“I’m nervous about messing up (on stage), I’m nervous about this whole thing. I just want the whole situation to kind of end.”
It’s a gray but warm day in downtown Akron and Carney, 22, and his guitar-playing/singing bandmate Dan Auerbach, 23, are sitting on the front porch of the house Carney shares with some friends and musicians.
The “whole situation” he’s referring to is the buzz among music fans and record labels about the band and the exciting nervous feeling of being on the verge of being the “next big thing” from Akron.
Their debut CD, The Big Come Up, a mix of country blues licks, Auerbach’s soulful singing and Carney’s garage-rock backbeat, has been receiving a lot of praise in print, including a four-star review from that venerable corporate-rock shill, Rolling Stone magazine.
They’re just back from a 22-night, 17-show tour that took them and Carney’s brother Mike from Ohio to Colorado, down the West Coast; through Austin, Texas; Las Vegas; Vancouver, Canada (illegally); Chicago; St. Louis, Mo.; and Mississippi; and they are wanted men. Reps from Atlanta-based indie label Velocette, Fat Possum and Brett Guerwitz of Epitaph have all come out to gigs to see what the fuss is about.
Now they are home in Akron and back to the routine of practicing five days a week from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. but things are different. It’s the second Friday in October and in 10 hours at the Beachland Ballroom’s Tavern in Cleveland, the band will play a sort of homecoming show with friends, girlfriends and family expected to attend, which also makes Carney nervous.
Another cause for worry and excitement is the rumor that Seymour Stein, the longtime industry bigwig, whose Sire Records was the home of Madonna, The Ramones, The Replacements and many others, is flying in just to see the band in action.
As usual in the music business, the band’s growing status as a hot property isn’t based solely on the musical merits of The Big Come Up. As the mainstream music-buying public comes down from the sickly sweet sugar buzz of the teen pop explosion and grows weary of the unrelenting angst of the nu metal/rap metal horde, any group with a back-to-basics rock sound is getting snapped up by major labels.
Bands such as The Hives, The Vines and the White Stripes are all being heralded for injecting some much needed adrenaline and positive energy into rock ‘n’ roll.
Much of The Black Keys press has made comparisons to the girl/boy, drum/guitar duo White Stripes, which is baffling to Carney.
“A lot of the stuff we get compared to for the most part is stuff I haven’t really heard at all,” he said. “I wasn’t really aware of them when we started. It’s weird how we get compared to the them so much. But if they were really in our consciousness during the formation of the band, don’t you think we would have stayed away from naming ourselves The Black Keys?”
For the record, the band’s name was derived from a term a mutual family friend and artist named Alfred McMoore uses to refer to unpleasant situations. “Whenever something doesn’t seem right to him he calls you a D-flat or a black key,” Carney said.
As for the comparisons, Carney’s not worried about the band being labeled copycats. “I was talking to a guy from Sony the other day and he said that there’s about five male/female blues duos with a female drummer about to come out. I think the comparisons will stop after that.”
The references, though favorable, are misguided. The White Stripes are as much a blues band as Kenny G is a jazz saxophonist. Elements of the blues can be heard, but so can arena rock, punk rock and a few other strains.
But the ascension of the White Stripes and other stripped down garage rock bands will help the Keys even though they aren’t drawing from the same well. Most of those bands use the raw, but melodic sound of the ‘60s English Invasion bands whose blues-based rock was filtered through their European sensibilities. The Keys look directly back to the source, the Mississippi Delta.
Auerbach sings like a man whose been around much longer than 23 years. While not straining to sound like a 50-year-old black man born in a shotgun shack in the rural south, Auerbach has a soulful edge. His raspy shouts and half-mumbled lyrics suggest a mix of Mississippi Fred McDowell and Van Morrison after a three day bender, and it serves well the group’s tales of mean mistreatin’ mamas and hard times.
On cuts such as the chugging Heavy Soul and the Black Sabbath-like take on Sleepy John Estes’ Leavin Trunk, Auerbach’s vocals, nimble fingerpicking, ragged, blown-speaker guitar tone and library of classic blues licks infuse the band’s songs with soul without straining for authenticity.
Auerbach has been a fan of country blues since he was a youngster listening to his mother Mary’s family picking and singing bluegrass and roots music. He’s also made several pilgrimages to Mississippi seeking Junior Kimbrough and T-Model Ford, two of his blues heroes.
He never managed to find Kimbrough, who died in 1998, but he did meet T-Model Ford during a trip to Greenville, Miss. After offering Auerbach a swig from his flask of corn liquor, Ford invited the young man to play with him. Auerbach spent much of the following day and night playing with Ford and absorbing the old man’s energy. Ford even let Auerbach crash on the floor of his trailer.
The blues is the sonic blueprint for the Keys’ music, but traces of other genres also appear, making the band both familiar and different.
Carney grew up loving the earthy R&B coming out of Memphis’ Stax label. He also admits to being Devo-obsessed and was introduced to singer/songwriter Tom Waits through his uncle, Ralph Carney, a multiinstrumentalist and composer who recorded with Waits. But he’s also a fan of “generic hard rock,” including T. Rex, Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy and, of course, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. Carney (son of longtime Akron Beacon Journal reporter Jim Carney) and Auerbach grew up a few blocks from one another in West Akron. Both attended Firestone High School, where their divergent musical reference points met at a mutual love of old soul and hip hop. They jammed together in Carney’s basement for fun, but didn’t meet up again until after college.
At that first practice, they decided to record a demo, which Carney wanted to sound as if “(Wu Tang Clan producer) RZA made a blues album.” They shipped it out to 15 labels and Alive Records in Burbank, Calif., jumped at the chance to put it out. Now that the foundation has been laid, it is time for the group to make its big come up.
Besides providing the thump, Carney is also the group’s producer and proprietor of Synth Etiquette Analog Sound, a cozy studio in the basement of his house.
Like their musical influences, Carney and Auerbach are a study in contrasts.
Tall, lean, clean-shaven and angular with a simple pair of black glasses, Carney is the group’s master storyteller and resident conspiracy theorist, with a wry sense of humor that keeps the more reserved Auerbach laughing. His drumming isn’t flashy, but he lays down a steady groove and he has a jittery sense of swing that somehow propels and modernizes his partner’s riffs.
Auerbach, while not the haunted figure pictured on the inside of the CD, is more low key, until he hits the stage.
That night at the Beachland, as Carney talks with friends outside the club, he admits to being quite nervous, but confident.
Stein’s attendance has been confirmed, automatically turning this homecoming concert into a showcase. The Black Keys are second on a three-band bill and following a short and none-too-interesting set by the openers, Auerbach and Carney arrange their simple four-piece drum kit, guitar, single-amp setup.
Friends, fans and family begin to crowd the stage on all sides in anticipation as Auerbach plays a few blues riffs for the soundcheck. As he tears into the bouncy opening of the CD’s lead track, Busted, the crowd begins bouncing heads and tapping toes and one woman standing at the very front shimmies and shakes through the whole 35-minute set, singing all of the lyrics.
On stage, Carney is in deep concentration, hunched over his drum kit, stomping out the grooves, while Auerbach uses every bit of space afforded him. He sways back and forth, drops to his knees, stomps his feet and closes his eyes, pausing between songs to thank the crowd and to take a gulp from a tall can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Standing near the back corner of the stage is Sire chief Seymour Stein. As the band plays, the been-there-heard-that look on his face doesn’t change. During the encore of Richard Berry’s Have Love Will Travel, Stein allows the song’s funky groove to move his hands to the beat and he applauds and nods at the end.
Later that night, Auerbach is enthusiastic about the show and the conversation with Stein. When asked if he’s ready for the next step, he is calm.
“Yeah, we’re ready,” he said. “We’ll keep doing what we do and we’ll be fine.”