Review: Black Keys vs. Dan Auerbach

Ironically enough, Dan Auerbach, the solo act, felt much more like a band than The Black Keys, despite the group’s infancy. Hacidena obviously knows each other well, but the band had to learn a new set of tunes for this tour. It didn’t matter – the band was right at home with the Keep It Hid material, as was Auerbach fronting them. He was much more focused with this new band, loosening up in spots that called for it, playing tight when necessary. Even the album’s softer, acoustic-driven songs sounded at home with a full band.

Plus, having any member of My Morning Jacket in your band automatically raises the stakes – it can’t hurt having a member of the best touring band in America behind you.

WINNER: Dan Auerbach

One less Key and one extra Jacket gives Auerbach the win. Despite Carney and Auerbach’s comforting chemistry, there was just something refreshing about this new band.

VENUE/ATMOSPHERE:

The 9:30 Club off U Street in Washington is one of the East coast’s finest clubs in one of D.C.’s coolest areas (when Ben’s Chili Bowl is on the way to a venue, it earns bonus points).

Rams Head Live in Baltimore is not.

Tucked inside Baltimore’s commercial-friendly Power Plant Live area near the Inner Harbor, Rams Head serves as an exercise in how to not make a venue. Borrowing from 9:30 Club, Rams Head features a balcony above the club floor, though it winds around awkwardly, making most vantage points obscured in some way. It also has an entirely too-small floor. Mix distracting décor, poor sightlines and muddy sound – maybe its just The Black Keys’ style, but you could barely make out any of Auerbach’s lyrics – and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Add a sold-out crowd and the club can be a bit suffocating.

Auerbach’s 9:30 Club show was packed, but not sold out, with just enough room to move freely, along with superb sound.

WINNER: Dan Auerbach.

No contest here, 9:30 Club is just the better venue.

SET LIST:

The Black Keys have five albums, two EPs and years of touring to pull from. And with no new album to promote, the Keys pulled from all five discs, throwing in a choice cover of Captain Beefheart’s I’m Glad for good measure. The show was heavy on the band’s 2003 sophomore effort, Thickfreakness – five of the 16 songs came from it – 2004’s Rubber Factory, and Attack & Release.

But no matter what year the song came from, each song had that distinct Black Keys feel: loud and bluesy. The Attack & Release songs in particular were seemingly unproduced – stripped to their raw core without Danger Mouse’s layered production. Strange Times had Auerbach hitting reggae upstrokes to replace the album version’s vocal effects, while set-closer I Got Mine put the crunchy guitars and pounding drums right in your face.

Stack Shot Billy, the band’s interpretation of the classic folk story, Stagger Lee, got a big response from the crowd and featured a huge solo from Auerbach early in the set. Your Touch was also a nice choice, as was Busted, one of the two selections from The Big Come Up.

Playing all but one of Keep It Hid’s tracks, the Auerbach show was much more predictable – the album, plus a new song and some obscure covers. The album is excellent, a chance for Auerbach to play some fully-fleshed out songs, free from the limits of a two-man band. Any Black Keys fans in attendance, not familiar with Keep It Hid, however, might have been disappointed.

But still, no Keys songs were necessary, these solo songs stand out on their own. From the subdued and powerful (Whispered Words) to the dark and funky (I Want Some More). Even Auerbach opening the show with album-opener Trouble Weighs a Ton with the band behind him and only Hacidena’s Dante Schwebel harmonizing – was simply serene.

For being a side-project, there wasn’t a bad song in the bunch. Even the unreleased new song (we’ll call it Money and Trouble, for arguments sake) was superb. The song seemed a fitting take on America’s current economic state with the lyrics “money and trouble, trouble and money” and “look what a dollar can do to a man”) a seedy tale with a slow, swampy groove.

WINNER: The Black Keys

Despite the great songs on Keep it Hid, Auerbach’s abridged songbook just can’t compete with his masterworks – the variety and breath of the Keys show takes this category.

BEST COVER SONG:

The Black Keys show only offered one true cover, the aforementioned Captain Beefheart tune, I’m Glad, which the Keys recorded and released as an MP3 last year. The song was seemingly made for The Black Keys to play and was one the show’s best performances.

Auerbach’s set-closing cover of the obscure Animals’ cut Inside Looking Out, however, brought the house down – leaving the crowd hot for an encore. Auerbach really got into this one and the song showcased the band as a perfectly cohesive unit – a brilliant finale.

WINNER: Push

You can’t go wrong with either of these songs, while I’m Glad may be the better track, Inside Looking Out’s performance was so top-notch, it’s too close to pick a winner.

OVERALL PERFORMANCE:

For all its loose, and rough patches, The Black Keys are a well-oiled machine, churning out grungy, distorted sets with ease. The band didn’t lack anything in stage presence, though Auerbach’s drowned-out vocals left something to be desired.

Auerbach and Co. just raised the bar for what a side-project can be. Auerbach looked so comfortable in front of this new band, and it showed in his performance. He was more gracious to his audience too, repeatedly thanking them for showing up. This new band rejuvenated him, giving him more freedom to jump up and down, and really move. There was never a dull moment with Auerbach’s set.

WINNER: Dan Auerbach

Not to knock the Keys, but Auerbach’s show had that special feeling you can only get from a band playing together for the first time. Auerbach and his band will always remember that show because it was their first – long after a random stop in Baltimore for The Black Keys.

FINAL SCORE: Dan Auerbach: 3, The Black Keys: 1

There you have it; Auerbach beats himself by a comfortable margin. Not to take anything away from The Black Keys – the pair puts on a great live show – but Auerbach’s solo band deserved this one. It’s rare you get such a tight show from a first-time live performance.

Setlists:

The Black Keys
Rams Head Live!
Baltimore, Md.
Feb. 4, 2009

Set: Same Old Thing, 10 A.M. Automatic, Thickfreakness, Girl is on My Mind, Stack Shot Billy, Busted, Everywhere I Go, Strange Times, Your Touch, I’m Glad*, Psychotic Girl, No Trust, Have Love Will Travel, The Breaks > I Got Mine

Encore: Set You Free, Til I Get My Way

Notes:
*Captain Beefheart cover

Dan Auerbach
9:30 Club
Washington, DC
Feb. 28, 2009

Set: Trouble Weighs a Ton, I Want Some More, The Prowl > When I Left the Room, My Last Mistake, Mean Monsoon, Oh Carol, I’m So Sad*, Real Desire, [Unreleased song], Street Walkin’, When the Night Comes, Whispered Words > Heartbroken, In Disrepair, Keep it Hid, Inside Looking [email protected]
Encore: Goin’ Home, [Unknown cover or unreleased track]

Notes:
*Rockin’ Horse cover
@The Animals cover

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