The Black Keys, The Morning Benders, Val-Air Ballroom, West Des Moines, IA – 8/8
Photos by Jennifer Coleman, DigitalSuburbia.net
Much like the flash flooding that swallowed parts of Des Moines directly after their show, The Black Keys hit hard and heavy, laying waste to the masses before them, and exhausting a capacity crowd on a steamy summer night.
Iowa is hot in August, and when 2000+ people shove into a ballroom with broken air conditioning, it gets downright stanky. 110°degrees kind of stanky. But, sauna-like conditions or not, the crowd was ready when The Morning Benders hit the stage. An alterna-pop quartet, they offered up a mélange that generally mixed Berlin-forward Bowie and post- Pet Sounds pop. The tunes occasionally suffered from a treble-heavy mix that surrendered all definition once their soundscaping hit full-force. The nicest moment was “Excuses”, the Benders’ take on the classic I-vi-ii-V-I doo-wop/jazz progression. Much like Bowie, they were revisiting rock’s roots while sounding modern, and the crowd opened up and sang along with front man Chris Chu.
A great band hushes people, encouraging a reverence for what is about to happen. As the crowd dripped in anticipation, though heatedly uncomfortable, it was easy to feel the pending storm. And when the Keys slid and slammed into “thickfreakness”, it was thunder and lightning playing serious, hard, grooving music. By “10 AM Automatic”, the long-time fans were singing along, and with “Stack Shot Billy,” band and crowd were moving as one. It’s a revelation to experience music that is honoring of the past it transcends, especially when it is so vitally relevant to its own time and place.
During “Busted” I had the notion that the Keys are quite like The Yardbirds, a band that understood the climax of improvisation, and did so with a brilliant violence. The Keys do this on an even more primal level, with their distinct lack of pop-culture polish. Which is not to say the songs aren’t polished; much like the rocks in a river bed, these jewels have been tumbled into something unique and precious.
Singing “Strange Times”, Dan Auerbach could almost be the Cobain of his time, and the shoe fits: Patrick Carney hits the skins harder than anyone since Dave Grohl, the band is fiercely original yet loves its history, and rock music is ready for its next charismatic re-invention, much like the early 90’s of Nirvana.
Bassist Nick Movshon and keyboardist Leon Michels came aboard at “Same Old Thing”; “Everlasting Light”, with its falsettos and slinking bass line, was a favorite with the ladies. “Chop and Change”, from the Eclipse soundtrack, was a lovely, Doors-like number, carried by the keyboards with Auerbach working a maraca, and at times leaving an eerie, beautiful space in lieu of the guitar part. The song breathes easily among the tunes from their smash hit Brothers.
As the 4-piece started the current single, the VMA-nominated “Tighten Up,” the newer dual nature of the band became clearer. Much like Zeppelin, Auerbach and Carney pull it back just enough, and turn into a soul band at the right moments, pedaling the light with the heavy. It is easy to see why the song’s a hit- “I wanted love… I neeeeeded love…”; who can’t empathize with that? Ike Turner was going to record with the Keys before he passed, and songs like this make one mourn for lost opportunities.
Once Movshon and Michels left a few songs later, the duo returned to the velvet pummeling they excel at. “I’ll Be Your Man”, the theme from HBO’s Hung, was a bit slower and sexier, and would have worked nicely on the late Nathaniel Mayer’s last two albums, which Auerbach performed, composed, engineered and produced with Mayer and friends.
With a two-song encore of “Sinister Kid” and “’Till I Get My Way”, it was easy to see the reason they are selling out ballrooms and theaters cross-country. They end with the same fire they start with, and leave more on stage than nearly all of their contemporaries would, or perhaps could. And as a perfect birthday gift to a die-hard fan like my brother Dan, it truly was good to the last drop.