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Published: 2005/11/13
by Brian Gearing

The Black Keys The Black Keys Live

There comes a time in every man’s life when he has to reevaluate the path he’s taken. After ten or so years as a strict jam fiend, a life-changing experience brought me into contact with those “other” music fansthe ones that listen to studio records; the ones that can’t stand the poor quality of live audience recordings; the ones that can’t bear songs that last longer than five minutes. After so many years on such a limited diet, I wrinkled my nose at firstthen I remembered that I used to be one of those others.

Ten years after falling in love with the Grateful Dead and never looking back, I heard Iggy and the Stooges and finally reawakened to the glory of volume and bad intentions. While garage bands are antithetical to the virtuosity with which so many of my jam heroes astound and amaze, they make up for their lack of raw talent with an energy and abandon that can’t exist in the composed intricacies and technical virtuosity of the jam aesthetic. When I rediscovered true punk, I discovered a new language of power, and I was hungry again.

Few bands satisfy the urge for the real and the raw more than the Black Keys. Rubber Factory was a revelation, and it didn’t leave my player for weeks. In the Keys’ Akron, OH garage, some bands would sound like the last fallen soldier at the bottom of a Budweiser can. Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach sound like the mad bluesmen that put him there, along with about eleven more of his brothers in arms.

Few live bands sound as live as the Keys do in the studio, so The Black Keys Live comes with high expectations. While a drummer, a guitarist, and an antiquated light system don’t promise much in the way of visual stimulation, the duo’s simplicity leaves plenty of room for their gritty blues to rip through. The vintage, washed out blue and red stage lighting is the perfect filter for the Keys’ throwback garage rock, and the tire stack stage props fit naturally next to Auerbach’s amp arsenal in the corner over by the Dodge. The often shaky camera work hints that there’s as much action behind the camera as in front of it, and the few shots of the adoring Australian crowd confirm it. The only complaint I have is with my stereo, not the DVD. As much as I want to, I just can’t seem to get the volume loud enough to put myself there.

Kicking off with the raw rock and roll of “10 A.M. Automatic” and rolling through the slow, chunky blues of “Thickfreakness” and “Girl Is on My Mind,” the Akronites don’t really hit their stride until “Hard Row,” which turns up the knob as the audience sings along. Auerbach’s vocals are perfectly imperfect, and the schizophrenic lights and camera switching of “Busted” mirror the urgency of the bluesy punk coming from the screen.

The barroom murder ballad “Stack Shot Billy” is as close to an epic as the Black Keys are likely to get, and Auerbach’s scratchy, metallic tone does as much for the narration as his growled lyrics. “The Breaks” cries with dissonant Hendrix blues, while Carney beats on his kit like a dangerous drunk at the back door on “Till I Get My Way.” “Grown So Ugly” spits out nasty riffs before finally hitting the floor on Chuck Berry’s bastard garage anthem, “Have Love Will Travel.”

The double encore starts with alternating slow, mournful blues and epic guitar rock on “Everywhere I Go” before nodding to the fathers of the big garage sound on the Stooges’ “No Fun,” then concluding with the thundering Cream lick and soulful vocals of “The Desperate Man” and the big, noisy finish of “Heavy Soul.”

Since the hour-long feature presentation left my hunger satisfied, I didn’t have much room for dessert, which is probably a good thing, since most of this disc’s special features aren’t fit to follow up such a feast. While the interview provides some insight into the Black Keys’ musical influences and DIY spirit, as well as brief clips of a radio performance, the rest of the menu choices failed to live up to the main course. The video for “10 A.M. Automatic” with the duo performing for an Ohio Public Access Hassidic Jewish talk show gave me a slight chuckle, but “Set You Free” didn’t do much at all. I’ve never really seen the point of a photo gallery on a DVD (just hit pause!), and this one didn’t do anything to change my mind.

The performance itself, however, is magnetic. Like a B-grade horror film, it’s not the special effects that get you; it’s the scary story. I’m blessed to have gotten to the point where I can honestly say that I don’t give a shit if they’re perfect or not, and I don’t care if the music is choppy and chunky. There is a passion in imperfection that is more powerful than virtuosity. If someone hits you in the head with a sledgehammer, it doesn’t matter if he misses your temple, as long as he makes contact. The Black Keys carry a big sledgehammer, and believe me, your head is a plenty big target.

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