The Black Keys at Bonnaroo – photo by John Patrick Gatta
I’m driving west, watching the monster wind turbines churning alongside I-80 and wondering if it’ll be pouring by the time we reach Council Bluffs. So far this summer, I’ve been lucky. Bonnaroo was hot and dry in 2011. Des Moines’ own 80-35 Music Festival played out under nothing worse than a little drizzle. But tonight, the indigo smudge ahead keeps consuming more sky.
Sprinkles dot the windshield 20 miles outside the venue, and by the time we unfold our lawn chairs in the grassy amphitheatre, it’s all-out rain. We take refuge under our ponchos and I start to wonder why I’m here when I just saw The Black Keys at the foot of Centeroo’s What Stage—along with around 60,000 other singing, jumping, fist-pumping fans. Can The Keys bring the same intensity to 4,000 rain-soaked Midwesterners?
A beer guy stops by, and as we dig for our money, he asks if we’re looking forward to the show. Definitely, we tell the guy, and my husband describes their performance last summer in Des Moines, where a hot August night, a ballroom’s broken AC and 2,000 fans created the perfect concert storm. “It was 110 in there—no lie,” I say. “And Dan Auerbach only mentioned it once. My hair looked like I’d just gotten out of the shower. But every time we talked about heading out, they’d launch into their next song, everyone would go berserk, and they’d just kill it. We could not leave.”
“I’m not supposed to do this,” the beer guy says, “but I had a chance to talk with them a little while ago, and they said that was the hottest show they’ve ever played.”
“Des Moines?” I ask, and he nods. I shake my head, feeling terrible that my state gave them such a memorably miserable welcome.
The ponchos aren’t going anywhere during Cage the Elephant’s super-charged set, in which Matthew Schultz jokes about faking an electrocution and crowd-walks—without missing a single lyric—to “Indy Kidz.”
Just after 8:30, as we’re finishing off a Chicago dog, sunlight glints off the casino near the stage. Moments later, a cheer echoes back from the front as Patrick Carney takes his place at the drum set and Auerbach steps up to the mic with his timeless introduction: “We are the Black Keys, and we are from Akron, Ohio” A split second later, he’s laying out the zero-to-sixty joyride that opens “Thickfreakness,” surprising me with a brighter, looser and—dare I even think it?—better version of the song than the one I heard at Bonnaroo.
“Girl Is On My Mind” follows, Auerbach’s distinctive tenor ringing into the venue, his guitar work alternately hard-edged and playful; now taking its time, now cutting loose, sans a traditional guitar pick. “Thank you so much,” he concludes. “That’s Patrick on the drum kit…. It’s beautiful. This worked out all right.”
We ditch the ponchos as the duo slams into the “The Breaks” —Auerbach swinging his arm like a rock star one second, stepping decades deep into the Delta with his blues finger-work the next, shaking the neck of his guitar a little, bouncing the sound up into the amphitheatre. I turn around to check out his view: pale orange sky breaking through a smattering of charcoal-tinged clouds.
“Stack Shot Billy” follows, Auerbach calling up his St. Louis tenor to tell the Stagger Lee story, enunciating against an exaggerated blues slide, exploding into a hard-rock reverb that fills the summer night. He and Carney barely break, ambling instead toward “Busted,” making us wait…and then it’s on, Auerbach beating his guitar, Carney sweating to lay down the aggressive beat.
“This is a Kinks song,” Auerbach says now, introducing “Act Nice & Gentle” with respect for the British Invasion band whose rock and R & B hybrids have been reinvented many times over on both sides of the pond.
I move into the crowd to grab some photos as bassist Nick Movshon and keyboardist Leon Michels come onstage to support a moody, elegant version of “Everlasting Light,” Auerbach’s falsetto almost a mew, fans moving gently—chatting here and there, posing for Facebook snaps—and exploding as the quartet grooves the distorted opening for “Next Girl.” There’s an aching pause, then Carney and Movshon launch the song below the guitar and lyrics: “Well, the look of the cake, it ain’t… it ain’t always the taste… my ex girl, she had such a beautiful face.” Every guy in the place is singing along now—it feels like group therapy—“I wanted love, but not for myself, but for the girl so she could, love herself…”
The momentum builds with “Chop and Change,” Auerbach enunciating against the heavy bass and drum. “Howlin’ for You,” delivered with more definition than the studio version, is pure pleasure, but the road version swaps in a modified and somewhat subdued version of the recording’s eerie-cool guitar-keyboard riff.
Fans roar as Auerbach snaps out the opening punches of Grammy award-winning “Tighten Up,” which the foursome lays down with a slightly altered rhythm. The switch-up surprises the sing-along crowd a little but in this case, it’s a good thing, adding freshness to the show. Everyone’s on board by the second time the chorus comes around. “She’s Long Gone” and “Ten Cent Pistol” follow, played with delicious nuance and patience.
“Let’s hear it for Nick Movshon on bass and Leon Michels on the keyboard,” Auerbach says. “Thank you so much all of you for being here. It turned out to be a beautiful night. Once again, that’s Patrick on the drums. I’m Dan. We have a couple more songs for you.”
Now we’re all time traveling to 2002, Auerbach moving easily across the stage to “I’ll Be Your Man,” shaking his head back, dropping forward to play it up in the faces of the front row—and my best guess is that a grassy Iowa amphitheatre feels just about right for two guys who recorded their early work in an Akron basement and their latest in an unassuming one-story Nashville studio. For all the love I felt for this band at Bonnaroo, I’m convinced that I’m getting an even better show at an amphitheatre in Iowa.
The rest of their performance bears it out, including a hard-edged Strange Times—one that’s even grittier and more satisfying than the studio version. It’s a crowd favorite, well known for its role in Grand Theft Auto IV and trailers for ABC’s The Mole, Showtime series Dexter and CW Network’s Gossip Girl. A super-charged “I Got Mine” follows, Auerbach leaping up onto the drum stand, camping on the song’s insane reverb. Nobody’s letting it end without an encore.
“We’re gonna play a couple more songs for you,” Auerbach says, returning with Carney, Michels and Movshon. “Thank you very much.” And they’re off again, laying down the catchy, primal intro to “Sinister Kid,” its supple slide guitar riffs echoing out into a perfect summer night.
Can it get any better? It does, to the tune of the sexy and playful “Your Touch,” Auerbach bouncing with the crowd, shredding it like a rock star. I’m watching it all from our starting place back at the chairs, thinking it’s about as lovely an artist-and-fan scene as I’ve ever witnessed.
“Goodnight y’all,” Auerbach concludes simply. “We’ll see ya’ll next time. Take care, ya’ll. Be safe.”
That we are—and dry. I feel luckier than ever.