CLEVELAND: In 2002, the Black Keys played their first show at the Beachland Ballroom.
A decade and a few days later, the band returned to Cleveland on Tuesday night as gold-selling, Grammy-winning rockers commanding the stage of Quicken Loans Arena and giving more than 10,000 fans a healthy, 90-minute heaping of songs from their seven-album catalog.
Entering the stage to the Wu-Tang thump of GZA’s Liquid Swords were drummer Pat Carney and singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach, both formerly of Akron, along with backing musicians Gus Seyffert on bass and John Wood on keyboards. Auerbach greeted the crowd with “Hello, hometown!” before the band tore into Howlin’ for You from its 2010 Grammy-winning breakthrough album Brothers.
For longtime local fans, seeing the Black Keys make the transition to arenas might have seemed a bit surreal. But the band looked and sounded at home on the big stage, which was arranged to keep the musicians close to each other. Carney was in his usual spot near the front of the stage and Auerbach (coincidentally sporting the same “Beat Green” T-shirt he said he wore at the band’s first gig), was pacing, stalking and body jamming while unleashing his bluesy riffs on several fine solos.
The band was backed by large poles with huge spotlights and screens that projected shots of the Keys interspersed with various unobtrusive moving images. The screens managed to be big enough to see from the arena’s cheap seats, but not seem cavernous.
Auerbach, who has never been big on between-song banter, seemed to truly enjoy the moment, taking time to shout out to Beachland owners Cindy Barber and Mark Leddy and repeatedly thank the crowd.
Many of the songs on the band’s latest album El Camino — seven of which made the 21-song setlist — are built for arenas with bouncy pogo-inducing grooves and catchy melodies and choruses ripe for mass singalongs. The Keys’ latest single, Gold on the Ceiling, with its Gary Glitter/glam rock stomp, got the crowd jumping and singing and the ’60s inspired Dead and Gone with its yeah-yeahs sung in unison also got the rabid fans in front pogo-ing and singing along. Both tunes are from El Camino.
With two extra musicians holding down the bottom end, Auerbach was free to unleash his inner guitar god and remind the crowd of the band’s heavy blues influence on searing solos during Same Old Thing (from 2008’s Attack & Release) and the slinky new tune Money Maker.
The Keys are rock stars now, but perhaps a testament to the band’s gradual rise could be seen in the crowd, which skewed young but also contained couples from 16 to 60. There were groups of soccer moms on a night out, daddies and daughters and generations of families all decked out in Black Keys shirts and rocking together.
Despite the Keys’ recent mainstream success, which often brings larger crowds with limited knowledge of a band’s earlier material, the crowd went nuts for older tunes, especially when the Keys played four older songs as a duo. Those were a heavy, headbang-worthy take on 2003’s Thickfreakness, followed by Girl Is on My Mind from 2004’s Rubber Factory, then a slowed-down, soul-infused version of the Keys’ first album’s (The Big Come Up) best known song I’ll Be Your Man and a rocking, sing-along Your Touch from 2006’s Magic Potion.
The first set ended with a nice trio of Ten Cent Pistol, the Grammy-winning hit Tighten Up with a little extra funk, both from Brothers and a juiced-up take on El Camino’s Lonely Boy, inspiring unison shouts of “One more song!” from the crowd.
The band, of course, obliged with a three-song encore. A massive disco ball descended from the rafters to accompany the down-tempo Everlasting Light from Brothers highlighted by Auerbach’s floating falsetto. The Keys wrapped up their triumphant return to Northeast Ohio with She’s Long Gone from Brothers and I Got Mine from Attack & Release.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758.