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Published: 2012/04/02

The Black Keys, United Center, Chicago, IL- 3/19

Photo by Matthew Shelter

The last time The Black Keys played for a Chicago crowd, it was to ring in 2011 at the historic and quaint Aragon Ballroom. Since then, the blues/rock/soul duo’s 2010 album Brothers scored the band three Grammys and its newest effort, El Camino, debuted at No. 2 for its December release. When the band returned to the Windy City, old fans saw the same modern-day rock stars they’ve followed since the band’s inception in Akron, Ohio more than a decade ago. This time, however, those fans were joined by thousands of new faces, and they all packed into the largest arena in the United States for a sold-out show.

The Black Keys’ North American arena tour stopped at Chicago’s United Center on an uncommonly warm March Monday. As if on a mission to rock the faces off each and every person in the house, guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney powered through a no-frills, 90-minute set, flaunting the band’s last two albums, as well as a few old favorites. From the moment the duo – accompanied by John Wood on keyboard/guitar and bassists Gus Seyffert – nonchalantly stepped onto the jumbo screen-donned set, they meant business.

The steady drum beat and soulful pangs of “Howlin’ for You” broke through the dark purple stage lights first. As Auerbach and Carney marched through the well-known Brothers single and first song of the night, the crowd responded with steady and approving fist pumps that could only be seen when the purple rays were cast into the crowd. Sticking to the Brothers bill, the band dove into “Next Girl” and the lights sank to a swanky shade of red. As he barked the lyrics, Auerbach jolted through the song as if every beat was hitting him straight in the chest.

After the first of many of Auerbach’s pleas to “keep moving,” the band gave its first nod to El Camino with “Run Right Back.” As the infectious slide guitar rift of the song repeated, the rock heroes settled in to their signature stances for the night: Auerbach bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet and Carney hunched over his drum set like Animal from The Muppets. At this point, the thrashing arms of the ground floor fans were still pulsing steadily with the beat in true rock show fashion. “Thank you so much,” Auerbach said modestly at the end of the song, and then “That’s Patrick on the drums,” as if the crowd didn’t know.

The band ripped through a funky “Same Old Thing,” before getting back to their newest album. The crowd joined the band with plenty of “nah nah” and “woah oh oh” on the catchy “Dead and Gone,” and the El Camino favorite “Gold on the Ceiling” that followed was an obvious hit. Veteran fans were treated to “Thickfreakness,” a soul-drenched blast from 2003 that Auerbach grunted out with the heart of an old, weathered blues artist. Keeping things classic, the guys transitioned into Rubber Factory’s “Girl Is On My Mind.” With the spotlight on him, Auerbach hit the guitar hard, one leg in the air like a high school kid at his first talent show.

Continuing through the band’s discography, the band hit the decade-bending and punchy “I’ll Be Your Man.” The harsh and thick guitar sound turned sharper and more distinct for a super speed “Your Touch,” and Carney pounded away at the drum and symbols as if lost in his own world. The mood instantly changed with the haunting El Camino gem, “Little Black Submarines.” The crowd followed the lyrics from the creeping beginning to the strong second half, as the band produced Led Zeppelin-like sound and utilized Dylan-esque tambourines. Switching gears, but not albums, the Black Keys tackled a catchy “Money Maker,” followed by fan favorite “Strange Times.”

Fans welcomed the newer “Chop and Change,” and then contributed background vocals to the retro-psychedelic “Nova Baby”—another El Camino homerun. Returning to Brothers, the band slowed it down for a smoking “Ten Cent Pistol.” Then, the familiar whistles of “Tighten Up” danced through the arena as the pleading, love-struck lyrics continued. Finishing the rock riot that they started, the Black Keys ended with the grooving radio hit “Lonely Boy” before wiping the sweat from their brows and making a break for backstage.

The cheering didn’t stop until the band reentered the packed house and began the steady guitar rift of an impressive “Everlasting Light,” full of soul, high notes and a larger-than-life disco ball. Although the crowd might have been satisfied with the dramatic, almost gospel song as a closer, the band flexed its rock and roll muscles and dove into “She’s Long Gone.” Then, as if nodding to their obvious success since their last Windy City show, the boys ended with a fat-free “I’ve Got Mine” that could have easily been aimed at a past lover – or critics who said the band would never make it. Touché, Black Keys.

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