Live Review: The Black Keys Play It Safe at Oracle Arena

The Black Keys
Jake Bugg
November 3, 2014
Oracle Arena

Better than: Two hours of Nissan commercials, I guess.

In defense of The Black Keys, I will say that it’s not, causally speaking, their fault. Their brand of raggedly good-timey blooze-rawk has come to identify pretty seamlessly with a certain kind of well-heeled and economically appetitive fun, thanks chiefly to a decade’s worth of very prolific commercial licensing of their music, but that doesn’t have to diminish the music itself, nor does it mean that Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney aren’t at least self-aware about the supposed evils of selling out in popular culture. Fine, fine, fine. Lord knows they’ve worked for what they have.

But like a lot of people, sure, I find their para-capitalist ubiquity something between comical and troubling. It’s troubling in part because there was no threshold moment for me, no single point where I went from ambivalently respecting The Black Keys to rolling my eyes at their mention — last time I bothered to check, circa maybe 2010’s Brothers, I thought The Black Keys were pretty cool. It’s troubling now because I still don’t have any real grounds to say they’re not, that I don’t basically buy into what they do and how they do it. And yet. It was good to concede, as they performed last night to a wildly appreciative Oracle Arena crowd, that there’s nothing of substance wrong with them. The troubling part was: what was right?

[jump] The performance itself wasn’t much to go by: Its first hour mostly felt like one big undifferentiated mass of pep-rally opera, broken into four-minute sections by periodic blackouts on stage. On Black Keys records (or TV, if you prefer) there’s a logic governing when a riff becomes a vamp, a vamp a stomp, and so on; here, along with a touring bassist and keyboardist, who received little in the way of fanfare or illumination, Auerbach and Carney sacrificed nuance and dynamic for a vaguely showy combination of wailing and rumbling, theatrics and cymbal-bashing. (Carney is a more expressive drummer than Meg White of The White Stripes, but he’s an even shittier timekeeper, and it has amused me to no end since I read the band’s Wikipedia page yesterday afternoon that he is also in a band called Drummer, in which he plays the bass.)

Their bout of sleep-jogging ended for the last third of the show, and, starting with a cover of Edwyn Collins’s “A Girl Like You” — which the ideal listener will recognize as being to the 1995 movie Empire Records as “Chop and Change” is to Twilight: Eclipse, or as “Howlin’ for You” is to NBA 2K14, or as “Your Touch” is to Zombieland or Friday Night Lights or Eastbound and Down, etc. — they earned the momentum they rode through highlights like “Gotta Get Away” and “Fever,” both from this year’s Turn Blue, and the raucous closer in “Lonely Boy.” Bursts of energy aside, though, no song did anything unexpected or challenging to bring band or audience out of our mutual comfort zone. Rare was the number whose assembly approached, much less added to, the quality or range of its recorded counterpart. Very few seemed to even try.
That’s an awfully subjective judgment, of course, and humor me for a minute while I make it worse: if that’s the case, why bother to do it live at all? On one hand there’s good reason to see this band live, to recouple all the familiar riffs with the people who make them, rather than the products and experiences they’re supposed to sell. On the other hand, what if it doesn’t matter? Maybe — again, intentionally or not — The Black Keys have wound up trafficking in music that doesn’t need to exist in a live context, but are wholly committed to the fiction that it does and should. If you’re a band who can keep this fiction alive, all you have to do is show up: the crowd will still go nuts, drink Chardonnay out of plastic cups, buy T-shirts and wear them to your future shows. The transactions will happen, as I said, seamlessly.

Except they don’t: Consider the roadies and guitar techs and sound engineers, and the many separate stagehands required to manage the dramatic fall, at the beginning of “Same Old Thing,” of the huge curtain behind the band to reveal a maze of glistening scaffolding. Consider, if you want to put a finer point on it, the usher who rushed down to the row in front of mine mid-set to scoot two Hispanic guys in leather jackets about six seats farther in so a white couple could sit down next to the aisle. Consider the biggest words visible from my seat (which, full disclosure, was very nice and required a Spinal Tap-like trek through the Oakland Coliseum and three ushers to find), which were THE CLOROX CO. and IGNITE FARM and KAISER PERMANENTE (Thrive) and VISA and, well, ORACLE.  

The point is that this production was and is work-intensive, just in the wrong places. The music at issue has drawn from the well of working-class tradition for so long that it almost doesn’t register now that the people involved at most levels are working-class in a very different sense of the phrase, one that’s a lot closer to 2014 Silicon Valley than it is to mid-century Mississippi. Not to suggest for an instant that anyone in the crowd hadn’t spent the whole day working, and honestly at that — just that we may not be the people whose comfort zones need to be so scrupulously respected. As I said, it’s not The Black Keys’ fault that it’s our hands that feed them, that bankroll their intricate and personnel-intensive yet also sparse and generally unvarying live show. But there’s something hopeless and out-of-touch about the depths of their refusal to offend — offend us, offend their corporate hosts, offend the whole ecosystem in between.

After “Lonely Boy” the band left the stage and waited for about five minutes before returning for an encore — easily the edgiest thing they did all evening — and when they did the crowd went wild again, maybe even more so than when they took the stage the first time. (Do I even have to belabor the point by saying that the lights people waved in the air while waiting and cheering were not cigarette lighters but smartphone flashlights? And that the lady sitting next to me was one of the wavers for a while, but that by the time the band came back she was looking at pictures of pie on Facebook?) Before they left that first time, Auerbach thanked us all in his blandly humble way, then told us — as though we didn’t have an army of ushers and lane-assist robots in our cars and top-of-the-line IUDs — as though he didn’t know we had all these things — to “be safe tonight.” Good advice, apparently.
Critic’s Notebook

Opening act: Moptopped 20-year-old gunslinger Jake Bugg, accompanied by an expert bassist and an expert drummer who had the mutually unflappable looks of men who have been session musicians for enfants far more terribles than Jake could ever possibly be, ran through a quick set of affably bratty, guitar-driven songs that either ambled or galloped, not without dignity, toward something that was never quite specified. He transitioned between songs quickly and offered little banter, which turned out to be, your correspondent surmised, because his thick Nottingham accent rendered his speaking voice virtually unintelligible. 


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