The Black Keys, Little Brothers- 2/13The North Mississippi Allstars w/Brown & Burnside, Newport Music Hall, Columbus, OH- 2/14
"One thing the blues ain't is funny." Stephen Stills would make this statement before playing his acoustic blues song "Black Queen" during performances with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Over Valentine's Day weekend I saw three different bands that have taken Stills' statement to heart by creating honest and inspired music that is deeply rooted in the blues.
The Black Keys performed for a little over an hour in front of a capacity crowd at Little Brother’s in Columbus, Ohio on Friday the thirteenth, which just happened to be Valentine’s Eve. The Black Keys consist of Akron, Ohio residents Dan Auerbach on guitar and vocals and Pat Carney on drums. Although this band is only a duo they were able to create a huge amount of bone rattling and skin shivering sounds. Before the concert I was already impressed by Auerbach’s blues based guitar lines and powerful, raspy vocals which can be found on both of their critically acclaimed albums, 2002’s The Big Come Up and 2003’s Thickfreakness. I entered the show expecting Auerbach to be the driving force that would propel the band through their two or three minute jams, but after about two songs it was clear to me that Pat Carney was the leader of the band. Don’t get me wrong, Auerbach’s playing was excellent but he seemed to take his cues and directions on where the songs were heading from the explosive drumming of Carney. While Auerbach tore through his vocals and guitar fills Carney would bash away on his drum kit like a rabid Keith Moon playing in Ginger Baker’s intricate style. Musically Auerbach and Carney were as tight as a dolphin’s ass and at no point did they meander away from their onslaught of rock and roll. During their set the Black Keys performed Junior Kimbrough’s "Do The Romp", the Beatles’ "She Said, She Said", and the Stooges’ "No Fun." These cover songs provided the Black Keys an opportunity to put their own stamp of creativity onto the blues and rock classics, and as a result they seemed more inclined to improvise during these songs than they did during their own tunes. I would have enjoyed some more improvising and extended versions of the original songs that they played throughout the night. "Them Eyes", "Countdown", "Busted", "I’ll Be Your Man", "Midnight in Her Eyes", and "Have Love Will Travel" were all played precisely with an extreme amount of passion, but it would have been nice if they would have added some new twists to these songs rather than reproducing the album versions. One of the things that originally intrigued me about this band was that they release different arrangements and mixes of their songs as singles and I was hoping they would reinterpret their songs in different formats when they played them live. It is very exciting that young bands like the Black Keys and the Kings of Leon will have an opportunity to play at the Bonnaroo Music Festival this summer and it will be really interesting to see the reaction that they receive from the jam friendly revellers.
On Valentine’s Day, which in my opinion is the best day on which to celebrate the blues, I had an opportunity to see more blues based entertainment in the form of the North Mississippi Allstars and their opening band Brown and Burnside. As I entered the Newport Music Hall I was greeted by the enormously distorted sounds of Kenny Brown’s guitar. Along with Cedric Burnside on drums, Kenny Brown delivered forty minutes of modern Mississippi Delta Blues. Normally, Brown and Burnside act as the backing band for R.L. Burnside, who is a fiercely original and spirited blues man that is able to captivate listeners with his booming voice. Without the presence of R.L. Burnside playing raging slide guitar and singing in his evil way, Brown and Burnside understandably sounded like they were missing something. Another negative element was the fact that both of their microphones were turned up far too loud, so it was impossible to decipher or understand any of the lyrics to their songs. Brown and Burnside did create a nice groove playing off one another, but it wasn’t until Luther Dickinson joined them onstage that things seemed to click. With his blonde flying V guitar with shiny gold pickups in hand Dickinson joined the southern duo for a rendition of R.L. Burnside’s "Goin’ Down South." This version of the Fat Possum classic got the crowd shaking and finally made Brown’s guitar wailings and Burnside’s vigorous drumming sound complete and comfortable. Dickinson provided an extra layer of rhythm and dexterity to Brown and Burnside’s mix of funky blues and it made me wish that Dickinson, or R.L. Burnside himself, had been there for the entire opening set.
After about a twenty-minute interlude the North Mississippi Allstars took to the Newport’s stage and presented a wonderful bouquet of blues as a pleasant Valentine’s gift to all who were in attendance. Throughout their set the Allstars played many extraordinary songs including: "It Hurst Me Too" with Kenny Brown sitting in on guitar, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s "Whiskey Rock-A-Roller" with drummer Cody Dickinson on guitar and vocals, B.B. King’s "The Thrill is Gone" with Duwayne Burnside on vocals, R.L. Burnside’s "Snake Drive" with Cedric Burnside sitting in on vocals, and their own song "51 Phantom." While the Allstars bass player Chris Chew did play some filthy funkified fills, it was the blues songs that stood out during the Allstars performance. Along with Chew’s nasty bass runs the Allstars did make an attempt at playing some of their more progressively modern rock songs off of their latest album Polaris, but it was extended versions of "Sugartown" and Junior Kimbrough’s "All Night Long" that really sounded dynamic and energized. The highlight of the show came in the form of the first encore when Cody Dickinson took to the front of the stage and played an amplified washboard. Kenny Brown joined the Allstars as Cody was playing his electric washboard and a long almost psychedelic jam ensued. The music that was created during this jam was very heavy and was capped off by Cody Dickinson shouting Kenny Brown’s name into his microphone in rhythm with the music. This entire section of the show with Cody on electric washboard really invigorated the crowd and when the jam finished a large uproar of approval reigned supreme over the music hall. Another highpoint of the show was Cody Dickinson’s simultaneous keyboard and drum playing. It was the first time I have ever seen a drummer play keyboards while he was drumming. Cody Dickinson produced the swirling sounds of an organ during "The Thrill is Gone" and a few other songs, and this extra zone of music really complemented the Allstars overall groove. After about two and a half hours and a couple of encores the North Mississippi Allstars left the stage amongst many shouts of applause. While the Allstars did dive into different genres of music it was the blues and the guitar interplay between Duwayne Burnside and Luther Dickinson that really stood out to me. As their albums have become more college radio friendly over the years it is nice to see that they still represent their roots in concert.