The Black Keys w/ Dinosaur Jr.

Minor Chords Fill Major Void

Thursday, 21 June 2007

ATLANTA—It’s a rare night when a rock show ascends to ecclesiastical heights, but tonight in downtown Atlanta, the stage is set for such things. The Black Keys are headlining a show at The Tabernacle. The Akron band is almost spiritual in their approach to the blues and the venue is an old church, now dressed up in folk art motifs.

image courtesy of Derek Slaton

By 6:00 p.m., an eclectic assortment of rock parishioners are lined up outside the The Tabernacle on Luckie Street. Many are preparing to catch their first glimpse of the reunited Dinosaur Jr., a band that produced three defining albums in the 1980s before fading out in a storm of internal strife. While Dinosaur Jr. will satisfy the crowd’s curiosities, it’s The Black Keys that bring people out in the heat of the late afternoon on the Summer Solstice.

A few hours before The Black Keys’ performance, Patrick Carney, one half of the power duo, is wandering around the labyrinth backstage area. He wants to revisit the catering spread as his stomach is slightly askew. He finds the ingredient most likely to upset, the nice looking but dangerous Habanero pepper hidden in a sauce. For better or worse, Carney will move through the night with fire in his belly.

Carney, 27, is a lanky man with a wry sense of humor. He wears what look to be typical nerd glasses, but upon closer inspection, they’re actually Dolce & Gabbana, which is funny, because The Black Keys are one of the most down to earth groups on the scene today. They don’t ride in a chauffeured tour bus nor stay in extravagent hotels. Carney says they prefer to return to Akron with the money they earn.

It’s the band’s DIY ethic that brought them to this lofty place. Recalling the band’s first record, Carney says he bought a bunch of equipment for his basement studio on a credit card and hoped for the best. He says they got “very lucky” to find a label and fans interested in what they were doing. That indie label–Fat Possum–has since been replaced by major label Nonesuch. Perhaps this explains the designer eyewear.

Exploring another advantage of their new major label deal, Carney says The Black Keys may forgo their patented lo-fi basement in favor of an industry studio for their fifth album. “We’re not against having people work with us,” he adds.

While The Black Keys are clearly enjoying the success they’ve worked hard to earn, don’t expect them to abandon their native Akron. Carney says, “We live in Akron because all our family and friends are there.” He adds that he used to get upset when friends moved out of town, as if they were somehow traitorous. Loyalty is part of the composition of this band. They’re loyal to their music, for one. Critics have drawn lines from modern day Akron to the hills of north Mississippi and the gin joints on Chicago’s southside, saying The Black Keys’ work is derivative. Responding to one backhanded compliment delivered in the press coming out of Bonnaroo, Carney says, “Dan (Auerbach) writes about real experiences. Our music is genuine.”

As with most things, the proof is in the pudding. After a short, but deafening set by Dinosaur Jr., The Black Keys take command. They run through popular songs off Magic Potion like “Your Touch” and “Stack Shot Billy” off Rubber Factory. Auerbach roams the sparsely set stage like a hunter. In his sights are modern rock fans suffering from blues deprivation. Tonight though, all suffering is alleviated thanks to the efforts of Pat and Dan. There is a revival in full swing here. Hearts and minds are being won. Around 11:30, as the show wraps up and the congregration is ushered to the street, no one wants to go home. The power of this religion is too joyful to cut short.

Rock Stars And Loud Guitars

Friday, 22 June 2007

NASHVILLE—In Nashville, City Hall is not some stale municipal building. Rather, it’s a spacious warehouse in The Gultch known for bringing top touring acts to this insanely musical city. The Gultch is an up-and-coming area down by the tracks on the southwest flank of downtown. One can dine on sushi, purchase an $80 t-shirt in a trendy boutique or get lost in some old school Americana at The Station Inn, possibly the best bluegrass bar in the land. But this Friday night, The Gultch belongs to the rockers. By 7:00 p.m., the line outside City Hall is already thick with fans of bare-bones rock ‘n’ roll. The reason is two-fold: the original Dinosaur Jr. is reunited and touring in support of their new record and The Black Keys, fresh from Bonnaroo, are headlining the bill.

photo courtesy of Derek Slaton

Dinosaur Jr. from Amherst, Massachusetts, is one of the more enigmatic bands in the modern rock history. After recording three promising albums in the 1980–Dinosaur, You’re Living All Over Me and Bug–and influencing bands like Nirvana, guitarist J. Mascis fired the band’s bass player, Lou Barlow. Mascis continued to record under the Dinosaur Jr. banner during the 1990s. Drummer Murph moved on to The Lemonheads and session work in New York City while Barlow made his side-project, Sebadoh, a full time endeavor. It was far from an amicable split. Barlow wrote unflattering songs about Mascis and grudges were held. Yet, after Merge Records reissued the band’s first three defining records in 2005, Mascis’ manager suggested the band get back together. With maturity on their side and a newfound will to see it through, Dinosaur Jr. is back together and stronger than ever. Their latest record, Beyond, was released by indie label Fat Possum on May 1, 2007. The record’s first track, “Almost Ready” is telling. Gray-haired Mascis sings, “Come on life, I’m almost ready” and one can’t help but think he is ready for a new generation of Dinosaur Jr. fans and a fruitful run in this seminal band for years to come.

Specualting on the longevity of this reunion, Barlow cautions, “This band has never had more than a five-month plan.” He also says Beyond is his favorite Dinosaur Jr. record, so there’s certainly satisfaction in the present and hope for the future. In the band’s near future, as in mere hours after tonight’s gig, they’re off to Europe where they will open for Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s clear the band has many fans inside the music industry. Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys, for instance, observes Dinosaur Jr.’s soundcheck intently from the rail in a secret handshake-like salute one guitar slinger gives to another. Auerbach, 27, is also no doubt making mental notes, as Mascis, 41, is a renowned guitarist with Neil Young-like power.

Dinosaur Jr. takes the stage just after 9:00 p.m. They open with “Almost Ready.” One thing everyone undertands from the first note is this band is here to be heard. In fact, the sound is deafening and, after the first song, Mascis almost apologizes to the crowd with a surprise admission, “Yes, we’re loud.” Before the show, lounging on a couch backstage in the green room, Mascis says his affinity for playing loud comes from starting out as a drummer before moving to guitar. He wants to feel the music and feel it he does. Mascis stands on stage in a house with Marshall amps for walls. His long hair hides his earplugs, but they’re there, of that there can be no doubt. He says he likes to “push air” and, with all the things there are to push in the world, air seems like a pretty decent choice.

Dinosaur Jr. rips through their 45-minute set pushing enough air to almost cool this capacity crowd on a hot Nashville night. During a set break, anticipation builds for The Black Keys, another guitar-centric band with a following that gets bigger after every gig. People everywhere are talking about this Akron band and not all of the talk is about their music. Some of the ladies present this evening clearly have crushes on Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney.

Although Nashville is home to Country music and the two-steppers who appreciate it, there are no Stetsons in the crowd tonight. Instead, the room is filled with an eclectic mix of dreads, Southern-style preppies and heavily inked indie rockers in pork pie hats. The Black Keys offer more of a blues-based approach than Dinosaur Jr. and their fans respond with various blues shuffles that mimic Auerbach’s own moves on stage. Auerbach clearly feels the blues in his bones and his ability to share them here is much appreciated. When The Black Keys leave the stage, their fans yell “Black Keys, Black Keys, Black Keys,” until Pat and Dan return for two more songs. The blues are meant to make people feel good. On this Friday night in Music City, thanks to the expert rendering by The Black Keys, they are doing just that.

More music writing: MusicFest NW: All Portland’s A Stage | Rudyard’s Rock Fest | When White Rabbits Go Dancing