Live Review: Black Keys at Staples Center

Photo by Brian Michaels for the Los Angeles Beat, from the band’s Santa Barbara show.

Black Keys sure are big, huh. Who would have thought it possible just a few years ago? Just a modest little two-piece band doing their own thing their own way, not following any trends, unless you count the White Stripes as a trend, which I guess is fair. They’re a big part of the mainstream rock culture of the last ten years, which for some reason a lot of people don’t take nearly as seriously as the rock culture of any era preceding it all the way back to the forties. There is a notion that prevails among a particular kind of person that what happens now is not as good as, can never compete with, and shouldn’t be placed on the same level as, the work of real serious rock musicians like John Lennon and Jimmy Page.

This came up a great deal last year on some of the music forums I frequent when the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame nominees were announced, including among them Guns N Roses and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Many, many of these particular people expressed outrage that these upstarts, these noisy kids, were being given space in the sacred temple of Official Rock History as Told To Jann Wenner. Whether they were outraged that Rush was being ignored, or Black Flag, or Hall & Oates, or whatever, the outcry was inevitably directed at both, never at one or the other. They were born too late.

I happened to think if the stated purpose of the institution is to honor famous people who made a difference to rock culture by doing it their way, both of those bands qualify immediately.  But I can also see why industry people wanted Guns and Chilis to have a big media circle jerk in their honor right at that time, because both those bands were about to go on big world tours, the kind that that serve this industry which pays the salaries of many of the people who vote for the Hall of Fame. Used to be dozens of bands to choose from, now it’s seemingly down to a few, mostly old and overpriced. Most of the ones making $200+ a night today are gonna be dead or incapacitated in twenty years or less, and who’s coming up to replace THEM?

But being unable to tour profitably isn’t a barrier to inclusion. Sooner or later, we obscurantists can believe all our favorite acts from Beefheart to Husker Du to Os Mutantes will get in someday, if they were just the right kind of famous or at least influential on the right kind of famous people, not related to prog or heavy metal, and formed before 1990. This is because, the thinking goes, there will be fewer and fewer bands from the post-1990 era that are considered worthy of induction after twenty-five years, and even less that are still touring to large followings. Chalk it up to the decline of mass culture in general; there’s just less and less in the way of real rock stars every year, and even the ones that get famous for a minute aren’t yet respected by most people over forty, ie, “those of us who grew up when rock and roll was REAL MUSIC”, aka, the People Who Vote for the Hall of Fame today.

But! Those voters are going to DIE OFF TOO. Younger people will replace them. Who will those particular kind of people be, the future institutionalizers of rock and roll? Won’t they be niche culture internet kids who won’t be able to come to a consensus about ANY relatively modern band and in that case, will it just be more of the same pool of people from the fifties through the eighties?

We won’t know whether Black Keys are a first-year lock for the Hall until 2026 or so but right now, their stock is trading high. Everybody loves ‘em, well, except the drummer’s ex-wife who wrote a piece about the unravelling of their marriage for Salon and received death threats for her efforts. But everyone else seems to think they’re swell. At least two people have given me Black Keys CDs over the years which I never listened to. Someone tried to drag me to see them years ago at one of the usual places, Spaceland or the Echo or something, and came back raving. No less a cultural expert than Gene Simmons mentioned them as being “cool” at a recent press conference, alongside an endorsement for Coldplay from Tommy “Not Ace Frehley” Thayer.

Somehow most of it had failed to penetrate. I’d heard a handful of things that I kind of liked, but prior to my arrival at Staples on Friday I hadn’t knowingly heard very much of their music, just a lot of glowing reviews and a general impression that they were pretty good and would be worth seeing.

And they are impressive. They play as a four-piece for most of the set now, minus a segment in the middle for “just the two of us.” While only a few songs are familiar, it seems like the kind of thing I would listen to. Lead guy’s got a good voice and is a badass guitar player. The drummer is tasteful and plays with power. The tunes are good, I wouldn’t give any of them a bad review.

They look great, real high contrast and liquid performers. I was slightly irritated by the fact that they kept their two side players practically in the dark all night which was unnecessary and disrespectful. Despite the low profile, their musical contributions made the show, giving the songs counterpoint that was notably lacking during the duo portion of the set.

The place was packed and the crowd was nuts, especially the dude next to me that kept punching the air and sloshing beer on the floor. He was really touched by the one about how a broken heart is blind and paused to loudly explain its significance to his girlfriend – “You know? Like a broken heart? It’s BLIND.” – before they broke into another air-punching one.

But despite the shortcomings of circumstance, it was real good. Had they stopped at the forty-five minute mark, I would have been screaming for more. Had they quit after an hour, I would have walked out satisfied saying “that band is great.”

Instead, at seventy minutes, I found myself checking my watch, noting how long until the planned 10:50 end time. At around 10:40, I said “close enough” and split for home. Not having a favorite song to wait til the second encore for, the will to continue sloshing through beer puddles just vanished. I kind of wanted to stick around for their big finale just to say I did, but, that’s not a good reason to do things so I didn’t. If the show’s good but the main criticism is that it’s going on too long, exercise some control and cut it off at just slightly too much instead of WAY too much. It felt like another twenty minutes, if they pushed it to eleven on the dot, would be way too much.

My reaction at the end is kind of curious. I liked it, but I was ready for it to be over. And I seem to have been the only one there that felt that way. Is this a critical failing? Am I coming up lacking, failing to acknowledge the magic of the moment just because I’m annoyed to have beer on my shoes? Had I done my homework and listened to the CDs would the result have been different? Or am I just a particular type of person? Gene Simmons likes them, and he’s older than me. All the particular people like them right now. Why not they’re easy enough to like.

But not quite love. I just listened to the first few videos of theirs to come up on Youtube and it still seems pretty good, not extraordinary. If those songs came on the radio I wouldn’t change the channel. They’re listenable, best in small doses. I don’t know, is that Hall Of Fame material or do they automatically get in as virtually the only people with guitars that made a lot of money during fiscal years 2009-13?  Will they be seen in 2027 as the Guns N Roses of their time or the Bon Jovi?

Yes, I do realize the Hall Of Fame is bullshit. It’s probably a product of reading too much Rolling Stone magazine which just published next year’s nominees. That’s where I read about Black Keys too. Maybe someday I’ll warm up up to them and realize I missed out on a historic and important moment at one of their most important shows ever. But fuck it, if this was some band playing at Spaceland I wouldn’t have all this peripheral garbage floating around in my head while trying to do an honest assessment of a rock band I’m seeing for the first time without knowing too much about them. On final assessment, yeah, they’re good. Worth checking out.

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