The Black Keys, singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Pat Carney, may be bona fide, arena-filling rock stars in 2012.
But it’s taken the better part of a decade for the duo to rise from scrappy Firestone grads making fuzz-heavy, blues-infused indie rock into a Billboard Top 5-charting, gold-selling, Grammy-winning duo and the newest members of the Firestone High School Hall of Fame. They play tonight at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
At the beginning of the millennium, few outside their circle of friends and family knew what or who the Black Keys were. Though they strategically spent most of their time building up an audience and buzz on the road, they did get early support from their Northeast Ohio home base.
Even before the release of their 2001 debut The Big Come Up, they were impressing the locals. Akron-bred, Nashville-based singer/songwriter/guitarist Patrick Sweany counted Auerbach as a member of his eponymous band for nearly two years before the Keys formed, and recalled the pair bonded over a mutual love of the raw sound of artists such as Hound Dog Taylor and T-Model Ford. Sweany credits Auerbach with introducing him to North Mississippi artists R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough.
Sweany first heard and saw Auerbach playing on the street at the old main bus stop on Main Street. “He was great, he could play before he knew the names of the strings,” Sweany said, recalling their first jam together.
“But he could flat out play, man. He didn’t run out of ideas and he started telling me about the garage rock he was into, the Greenhornes and stuff. I was pretty much on my blues island; anything that wasn’t made by dead black people, I didn’t like it,” he said, laughing.
“Dan had just turned 21 and was into that stuff, and his dad [Chuck] brought him to gigs and we got to know each other and he joined the band,” Sweany said from the South by Southwest festival in Austin, where he was promoting his latest album, That Old Southern Drag.
Sweany also recalls the moment he heard the early mixes of the Keys’ debut in a minivan behind Rascal’s Saloon in Dover during a between-set break.
“He played it, and I was like, man, that’s different, kind of cool. I had been hearing Dan play and sing, so it was his guitar playing and singing with this weird kind of like off-kilter, Wu-Tangy-like beats and nasty drum sound,” Sweany said.
Shortly thereafter things picked up for the Keys and Auerbach left Sweany’s band, but the two are still friends. Auerbach produced Sweany’s album Every Day Is a Dollar Gone, and his former bandleader has opened for the Black Keys on several occasions.
At the Lime Spider
One of those opening spots Sweany occupied happened at the now-defunct downtown rock club, the Lime Spider, which was one of the few places Akron fans could see the band perform during its early days.
Danny Basone, owner of both the Lime Spider and its current incarnation, the Lockview restaurant and bar, recalled the first time the band played the club in an opening spot, and he was manning the soundboard. “We were just trying to fill spots … and anytime a new band came around, we’d give them a show,” said Basone, a former drummer.
“I thought they were raw and had a nice fresh thing going on for Akron at the time.”
A few years and two albums later, in 2004, the Keys booked another show at the Lime Spider and Basone decided to use Ticketweb.com to sell the show. On the day tickets went on sale, Basone left his house to go to work and before he could make the short drive downtown, he received a call that the show had sold out.
“Being the boss, you always want to think somebody did something wrong, even though they didn’t,” he said. “So when I got to the bar, I checked the computer and said ‘holy [moly],’ this sold out in three minutes.”
The night of the show, Basone arrived to see a line of fans snaking around the block, cementing the idea that these guys were going somewhere.
On local radio
Though it’s only been in the last few years that Black Keys songs such as Tighten Up and Lonely Boy have made their way onto national radio, local station The Summit (WAPS 91.3-FM) has long been a champion of the band, adding first single I’ll Be Your Man into the rotation in October 2002 and giving it more than 300 plays.
Tommy Bruno, WAPS general manager, recalled hearing of them from former Akron school board member Mary Stormer, also known as Pat Carney’s mother. Bruno acquired a copy of The Big Come Up from one of Auerbach’s cousins and took it to programmer Bill Gruber.
“It was something that I had never heard before. I couldn’t really fit it into a genre or believe it was two people that were right from the area and it was such a big sound,” he said.
“That first record was so different than anything he’d ever heard, and I don’t think he was quite prepared for it. And I said, ‘Bill, this may not be very accessible, but there may be a great angle here, and they’re both from Firestone.’ ”
Any apprehension melted away rather quickly as each new Black Keys single became a part of the station’s rotation, with Strange Times and Tighten Up topping out at nearly 900 and 800 spins each.
Sweany said his friends’ gradual, methodical rise to arenas has been an interesting thing to watch and a bit inspiring.
“It’s where timing meets preparedness for people who are really successful and that’s what those guys did,” Sweany said. “They’ve had a knack for making the right decision at the right time.”