The Black Keys
Let’s start from where I just finished. The Astoria, the blues, the Johnny Winter sunburst Gibson Firebird brought back to its glory.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am reconciled, blues has a future and a name:
The Black Keys.
Dan Auerbach (guitar) and Patrick Carney (drums) are the ones who hold the (black) keys of blues renaissance. The only ones, since Meg depression put the White Stripes on hiatus, that can keep the blues alive this side of the millennium.
Solving the first music-puzzle, I can count at least 3 bands named after “Black xxxS”: Lips, Kids and Keys. Even including the Black (Eyed) Peas, the Black Crowes, the Black Seeds and the Black Angels which fail the rebus just for few letters, the Black Keys are by far the most amazing of them all.
You can also browse among the overabundance of indie-garage duos, all rigorously plural: The White Stripes, Blood Red Shoes, the Ting Tings, The Kills, The Dresden Dolls, the Raveonettes. The Black Keys are, again, the most amazing of them all.
If you hit the 5 “black keys” on a piano keyboard, you play an e-flat minor pentatonic (blues) scale. So we solved the name-puzzle too.
Music knowledge follows strange paths.
I stumbled upon Black Keys when their LP Rubber Factory came out thanks to a Fat Possum leaflet in one of their CD.
Fat Possum, possibly the most amazing blues label on earth, began recording, preserving and spreading some neglected bluesmen from the Hill Country, Mississippi. A rougher music, stripped to the bone, mostly played with just an electric guitar and a three piece drumkit. A music which never left the Delta juke joints, never got to Chicago or Memphis’ night clubs.
These records, to the disappointment of many bass players, where discovered by some garage rock bands in the nineties and gave rise to a trend of coarse, angular sound.
It is often referred as “punk-blues”, a futile word. Speaking in person with eighty-something years old T-Model Ford, one of the few of these bluesmen still alive, he confessed he doesn’t have a clue what punk is. “I know the blues and I play the blues” were his words while his trembling hand was trying to sign one of his CDs.
I met Fat Possum thanks to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and their A Ass Pocket of Whiskey album, recorded with another great bluesman, R. L. Burnside. As you might expect with Joe Spencer, not a great studio record, but the discover of a great treasure.
That is how Fat Possum signed, the Black Keys’ Rubber Factory first, Thickfreakness and the Junior Kimbrough’ covers EP, Chulahoma second, travelled from Oxford – Mississippi to land into my letterbox. Full circle.
Since they arrived I never stopped playing them, along with the blues of their mentors: Junior Kimbrough, R. L. Burnside, Asye Payton, and T-Model Ford. If you love the “Keys” give their grandfathers a go.
Back to present, Attack and Release, their fifth album, has recently been published by Nonesuch/V2, a label with a press office clearly more efficient than Fat Possum.
It is being reviewed and applauded as their best work to date.
Unquestionably it is their most diverse, if it translates into their best, I’ll tell when I can approach the listening without a sensation of perplexity and displacement.
Brian Burton’s – a.k.a Danger Mouse – production (Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz and next is Beck) openly intervenes in their legendary lo-fi sound. He was recruited to record a Black Keys collaboration with R’n’B legend Ike Turner, an unreleased project which failed because of Turner’s death.
Apparently, since then, The Black keys and Danger Mouse had pulled together enough material to fill a new album.
Burton’s control at the mixing desk cleans their abrasive, rowdy sound with mellower arrangements that gain in “soul” (Lies) but lose in spontaneity. Their trademark style is recognizable only on the second track, the beautiful I Got Mine.
Everything in Attack & Release is perfect, too perfect. The singing is defined, the guitars are tidy and the drumbeat precise. New instruments add shades to a colourful palette: a banjo in Psychotic Girl provides hints of country-bluegrass, a cameo by Marc Ribot inputs Waitsian memories.
The collaboration manages the impossible. Urban echoes become audible in the secluded Hills Country woods where nothing but the blues was allowed to enter for the past century. The album concentrates all his freshness in a remarkable closure with Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be.
Stopping over the old continent on their way to Australia, The Attack & Release European tour landed on the Brit islands, opening and closing at the London Astoria. I told you it is a must play venue, didn’t I?
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney enter the stage. No sight of Danger Mouse around. Opening with Girl Is On My Mind from Rubber Factory, which merges through a passionate solo into Set You Free from Thickfreakness, they instantly showed the packed audience who is in charge tonight.
The set spans through their entire career covering any album from The Big Come Up to Attack & Release. The newest songs, remodelled to preserve their typical abrasive sound uniform, keep me and the rest of the audience ecstatic throughout the entire set.
The closure with I Got Mine, latest album and tonight’s best moment, sounds so powerful that you wonder how two guys can achieve such soundness.
Aptly the soulful Lies is left out, it wouldn’t fit, and the encore opens with a rearranged guitar version of Psychotic Girl, the banjo left in the dressing room.
Symbolically, the Gibson firebird left by Johnny Winter on this stage after his encore a couple of weeks before, was picked up by Dan Auerbach. Plugged to some Made in Russia pedals is let loose to sound wildly. With a drummer as impressive as Patrick Carney, hammering the 4/4 so heavily on the bass drum to feel the beer dancing in your stomach, nothing else is needed. The Black Keys are an astonishing live garage-blues duo. Don’t tell Danger Mouse, this is the apotheosis of analogical sound in the digital era.
There are countless duos emerging on the music landscape.
Two likely reasons, a trend for simpler and steadier beats and a way to save money. With the record industry close to bankrupt and the need to fulfil an increasing demand for live acts, duos are a cheapest solution.
Photographing duos isn’t straightforward, particularly when they stop playing in your local pub and move to bigger venues. There isn’t an easy solution to catch two people dispersed on a wide stage.
You essentially have two opposite options.
One is to move to the side of the stage and mount a longer lens.
If you frame both, because of the flattened perspective this lenses give, they will look closer than effectively are. Think at sport photographs to visualize what I mean. I rarely like telephoto shots, they don’t give the viewer that feeling of being into the scene, but it can be used creatively using details to frame the subject.
The other option is to stay close and mount a lens wide enough to include both.
The problem here is that you may need a very wide lens, ending with a picture with the pair on each side. This composition, lacking a centre of attention usually looks dispersive.
Better if you wait a moment to get the couple stepping closer and interacting.
If neither works out, don’t despair, you can always mount in a single frame two separate shots!