The Black Keys ended the first leg of its 2012 North American tour with a sold out concert at Bojangles’ Coliseum Saturday. Tickets sold out well in advance for the band who - thanks to a slew of commercial and TV placements, word of mouth, and a decade of diligence - has brought funky, soulful blues-rock to the mainstream. Ever since the Black Keys opened for Kings of Leon in September 2010 at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre - arguably stealing the show (the crowd response alone tipped in the Keys’ favor) - the Ohio-based combo has been due for a Charlotte headlining gig.
A black clad Arctic Monkeys - the British rock quartet who rocketed to fame in the UK in 2006 but are still chasing household-name status stateside - opened the show with a solid set that showcased front man Alex Turner’s charisma and chops.
The Black Keys approached from the shadows of the large white screens that flanked the stage. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney were placed side by side at stage front while touring musicians Gus Seyffert and John Wood hung in back providing bass, keys and guitar. It launched into “Howlin’ For You” followed with “Next Girl,” both from 2010’s breakout album “Brothers.”
Carney’s drums popped with jarring clarity on “Run Right Back.” In fact, aside from the expected distortion the sound was loud and fairly clear especially compared to Bruce Springsteen’s 17-piece band playing the similarly laid out Greensboro Coliseum earlier this week where all the instruments and backing vocals could get muddled. The Black Keys played it straight and simple from the band makeup to the minimal videos and lighting (although I heard that the sound on the floor wasn’t as clear).
After renditions of “Same Old Thing,” “Dead and Gone,” and “Gold on the Ceiling” Seyffert and Wood disappeared backstage leaving Carney and Auerbach in their original duo form. The crowd went wild for older songs like a loose, jammy version of 2006’s “Girl is on My Mind,” which seemed more like a blues spiritual than the frustrated `60s garage-rock original. It also hit on 2002’s “I’ll Be Your Man,” a slice of classic-sounding soul, and 2006’s “Your Touch,” which had thousands bouncing, fists pumping in the air.
With the rest of the band back the slower, `60s-feeling “Little Black Submarines” with its “broken heart is blind” refrain served as the biggest sing-along - the Black Keys’ power ballad of sorts. “Money Maker,” “Strange Times,” “Chop and Change,” “Nova Baby,” and “Ten Cent Pistol” followed before the capper of “Tighten Up” and the danceable “Lonely Boy.” The latter - the lead track from its latest album "El Camino" - received the biggest response since the duo set. It had the entire building pulsing as the group whipped through it.
Auerbach and Carney returned to the stage for a three song encore. Not since Jon Spencer Blues Explosion has a rock band worked such a funky, sexual groove as the one in “I Got Mine,” its final song. But the Black Keys are less showmen and hypemen (compared to Spencer’s over-the-top stage persona) and more soul men. There was little schtick just pure rock n’ roll, simple instrumentation, and straight forward performances from marvelous players that can completely ravage their instruments while making such flowery playing look easy and relaxed.
As “I Got Mine” came to a close the band’s name dropped from the ceiling in flashing lights. The flashing sign, the enormous disco balls which were also saved for the finale, and the light trees that flanked the band, were the only props throughout the show. Those worked because they were simple and matched the band’s aesthetic. Like the Foo Fighters, the Black Keys serve as a reminder that a good rock band doesn’t need to provide an onstage circus to rock.