11th December 2012
From a purely selfish point of view, it’s a little disappointing to see The Black Keys playing arenas; as happy as you might be for a band finally making it big – and after years of plugging away in basement venues, there’s no question the duo deserve it – there’s always a part of you that wishes they could stay your little secret forever. Capacity-wise, tonight marks an enormous step up from their last Manchester appearance, as recently as February, and whilst some of the cheapest seats up in the gods are closed off, it’s an otherwise packed room that greets the band tonight.
There’s fairly heavyweight support tonight from The Maccabees, who are closing out a year spent almost entirely on the road behind third LP Given to the Wild; it’s that record that dominates their short set, with no room for the likes of ‘First Love’ and ‘Toothpaste Kisses’ from their altogether more twee debut; instead, the soaring guitars of ‘Feel to Follow’ and epic ‘Forever I’ve Known’ stand out amongst an impressive half-hour that hammers home just how much they’ve matured; if you’d told me six years ago that The Maccabees would one day sound totally at home in an arena, I’d have assumed you’d recently sustained a severe head injury.
Given that both of the last two Black Keys records, Brothers and El Camino, were effectively written for big rooms and huge crowds, it probably shouldn’t be too surprising to see them make this move up; the set is packed with singalong choruses, from opener ‘Howlin’ for You’ through to ‘Gold on the Ceiling’, but it’s not just in terms of crowd participation that these newer songs suit the new surroundings; probably the evening’s most impressive feature is the sheer volume of different guitar sounds that Dan Auerbach is able to coax from his instrument, and ‘Next Girl’, in particular, sounds absolutely enormous – the variety in his playing is the most potent weapon in the Black Keys arsenal.
Unfortunately, the older songs just don’t translate quite as well to this environment; ‘Thickfreakness’ is one of the best songs the band have ever written, but its rawer, bluesier sound sounds too turgid, too slow, for an arena crowd; the same can be said of ‘Strange Times’. Perhaps the main problem, though, is that the thrill of seeing a rock and roll band play is lost in rooms of this size; Patrick Carney’s never been the world’s tightest drummer, but at club-sized shows, his sloppiness was usually endearing, even exciting, but tonight it often sticks out like a sore thumb from an otherwise polished production. I don’t think it’s necessarily The Black Keys’ own fault that they aren’t suited to arenas; that type of crowd comes looking for a certain type of show – they want to hear all the hits, they want an impressive live show, and they usually want everything to sound like it does on record. There’s no crime in the band trying to fit that mould, but it’s just a tragedy that any kind of rock n’ roll spontaneity doesn’t fit into that world. The band encore with ‘I Got Mine’ and the riotous response from the crowd on the floor serves as a reminder of what once was as the mosh pits open up, and it’ll be interesting to see where The Black Keys head on their next record; they could potentially be a great arena band once they can fill the whole set with songs as catchy and commercially viable as ‘Lonely Boy’ and ‘Tighten Up’, but for now they’re stuck in a kind of purgatory, and it’d be an enormous shame if the thrills and spills of the band’s good old days was to be lost forever.
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