Live Review
The Black Keys
Alexandra Palace
Muswell Hill, London

Photography by David Sutheran

There are two of them, they’re American and they play a bluesy brand of rock’n’roll, but they sound nothing like the White Stripes. But of course you’re probably already acquainted with The Black Keys’ countrified rhythms by now. Perhaps you always have been; perhaps it happened all of a sudden.

At the end of 2011, they released their seventh album, ‘El Camino’, almost a decade after their debut, ‘The Big Come Up’. And yet it’s only recently that the Akron duo have rocketed to such notoriety that the are able to fill such an enormous venue as Alexandra Palace, three times over, no less. In April they’re headlining Coachella festival, alongside Radiohead and Dr Dre, but before they head into the desert they’ve got 30,000 people to play to over three nights.

From the edge of Muswell Hill, flecks of snow flicker between the thousands of lights shining up from the city, but inside the cavernous main room of the palace, the Ohio-based twosome blast out the first chords of ‘Howlin’ for You’ to a flashing, polka-dot screen that suits their ’60s garage licks to a tee. Tonight, perhaps due to the size of the room, there are four of them – extra hands on bass and keys – and yet despite this it’s difficult to understand how the band will fill the room from a stage that appears to be miles away. That thought lasts all of a minutes, as The Black Keys instantly prove to be one duo that knows how to make a racket. Suddenly, the effort of walking up that steep, snowy hill to get to the gig seems worth it.

Of course, it shouldn’t be taken for granted that the band won’t look like Borrowers from certain points towards the back of the room, or that the sound won’t get suffocated in the echo, but a track like ‘Run Right Back’ from the new record cuts right through with its jabbing beat and biting, stand-out riffs. ‘Money Maker’ is another foot-stomper that fights through the dense muffle with a strong, “hey now” chant of a chorus that can be sung along to just as easily as “a broken heart is blind” in the meaty, raspy ‘Little Black Submarines’.

‘Next Girl’ – taken from their 2010 LP ‘Brothers’ (along with ‘Howlin’…’), which bagged them two Grammy Awards – then plods along at a slower, determined pace, but there’s something about the way the drums roll effortlessly along with the reverberating, twanging riffs that make you feel like you can grab hold of its chunky rhythms.

These guys aren’t big talkers, but the songs follow one another in show-stopping style, and even when they play a handful of numbers on their own they still take over the entire stage with their presence. Red, white and blue spotlights shine over them as they bend country-inflected guitar solos and Dan Auerbach sexily croons his cigarettes-and-velvet vocals, and you realise that this isn’t a particularly cool band – they’re just a couple of thirtysomethings who couldn’t care less about what’s fashionable. They just know how to rock.

By D K Goldstein

Originally published in issue 35 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. March 2012