Shortly before their December concert at the Akron Civic Theatre, the Black Keys declared 2008 to be the year of no B.S. — the year the two West Akron-bred members would take control of their careers and their lives. With big-time representation from QPrime (who also has Metallica and Shania Twain on its roster), a highly anticipated album, Attack & Release, recorded with hot producer Danger Mouse, and several side gigs as producers on their plate, 2008 was shaping up to be the musicians' biggest yet.
Now, 11 months later, it appears Firestone High School grads Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have a pretty firm grip on all things Black Keys and will be performing a hometown show on Saturday at E.J. Thomas Hall, with the Royal Bangs opening.
The album was released on April Fool's Day and debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard charts. It quickly became the band's best-selling album, moving more than 130,000 copies to date.
Attack & Release, recorded at the famous Suma Studios in Painesville (Pere Ubu, Wild Cherry and many others), also found the band breaking out of its swampy, fuzzed-up blues rock riff comfort zone and adding layers of sonic and melodic accoutrement to its basic two-man sound.
Songs such as the single, Strange Times, with its up-tempo verses and snatches of organ, and the soulful Psychotic Girl, featuring a slinky bass line and tinkling saloon piano.
The album has guest contributors, including avant New York guitarist Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and many others) and Carney's uncle, Ralph Carney (Tin Huey, Tom Waits), on flute. There is also a duet with Kent's up-and-coming alt-country singer Jessica Lea Mayfield on the ballad Things Ain't Like They Used to Be.
''We were nervous about the record, but we were also proud of it,'' Carney said from Asheville, N.C., where the band was to play a sold-out show at the Orange Peel. ''We were hoping it would do well and it exceeded our expectations.
''It's weird this year, because there are a lot of small bands whose records have charted. There seems to be a group of bands who have been around for years that are starting to make headway [in the mainstream]. Maybe it's just because Korn's putting out less records.''
With no competition from Korn to worry about, the band's current tour has so far been its biggest, including the headlining show Aug. 7 that drew more than 4,800 fans in Brooklyn, N.Y. Many other dates are selling out weeks in advance. In addition, the band has a new DVD coming out in the fall, a five-camera shoot that was filmed at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Ore., by Lance Bangs, who also shot the band's Strange Times video.
''Everything is going really well,'' Carney said. ''All the tours have been awesome and the new record has already outsold all our other records.''
Aside from a successful tour and album, the two have begun racking up producer credits. In 2008, Auerbach has produced records by Mayfield, harmonious Texas family band Hacienda, Cincinnati's Buffalo Killers and Kentucky duo the Black Diamond Heavies — all recorded at his Akron Analog studios.
Meanwhile, Carney has been working on the debut album by Lana Davies, daughter of the Kinks' Dave Davies, recorded at Carney's Audio Eagle Lair and Tangerine Studios in North Hill.
Carney's Audio Eagle Record label is also gearing up for the fall release of local indie pop band Houseguest's latest album, Welcome, All That's Difficult.
''I want to do more production work, but usually the bands I end up recording want to spend two and a half weeks on a record and that's kind of a big time commitment,'' he said. ''I feel busy enough right now.''
But the band's schedule, which tentatively doesn't find it back in the studio until next spring, might be filling up with requests from classic rockers who want to add some of the Black Keys' special sauce to their own musical recipes.
In the past year or so, legendary rock frontmen Robert Plant and Rod Stewart have both expressed an affinity for the Keys.
Plant counted the band among his new music makers' favorites.
''I'm very happy listening to the Black Keys,'' he said in a May Rolling Stone magazine article. ''They're Akron's most feted sons, and they owe a lot to (blues legend) Skip James, as do I. So I listen to a lot of desert stuff, some very old blues like Lemon Jefferson, and the Black Keys.''
Likewise, Stewart has brought the band's name up as a current ''must listen'' and a potential collaborator.
''I want to make a blues record,'' Stewart told Rolling Stone at a Grammy party this year. ''You know, Muddy Waters, the old stuff, and I want it to be backed by the Black Keys.
''Do you think that they know who I am?''
While those possible collaborations have yet to move forward, the Keys have taken some tentative steps toward working with ZZ Top. Guitarist Billy Gibbons saw the band perform in New York in 2005, and after super producer Rick Rubin suggested the trio and the duo hook up for some writing and recording, Gibbons expressed his excitement at the idea.
''I'm such a big fan of those guys . . . it makes total sense,'' Gibbons said in a Billboard magazine piece. ''And that's pretty down and dirty, which is good for ZZ Top.''
''We're going to L.A. at the end of the month to try writing with them [ZZ Top],'' Carney said. ''We're going to record us just playing together trying to put together some ideas. We still haven't figured out the whole concept or what our role will be, but it should be cool.''
As to why the rock legends are digging the Keys' sound, Carney has no hypothesis, but is glad.
''I think it's cool. I'm into it. I just hope they don't like us because we remind them of something. I guess I don't want to be considered too retro. I don't know what the reason is, but if they genuinely like our music, I guess it doesn't matter why really,'' he said.
After the current tour leg ends, the Black Keys will take some time off to relax, celebrate the holidays and be with their families — Carney with his wife, former Beacon Journal staffer Denise Grollmus, while Auerbach and his wife, Stephanie, will tend to their daughter Sadie's second Christmas.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3758.