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The Black Keys perform at Kool Haus in Toronto on Aug. 3. (Della Rollins/The Globe and Mail)
The Black Keys perform at Kool Haus in Toronto on Aug. 3. (Della Rollins/The Globe and Mail)

Music: Review

Heavy, sweaty and a little bit derivative Add to ...

The Black Keys

  • At Kool Haus
  • In Toronto on Tuesday

Outside, it may have been cool and breezy, but inside the Kool Haus it was as hot and sticky as a sleepless Mississippi night, so humid that the moisture hung like fog in front of the stage lights. As a matter of personal comfort, it was sheer misery, particularly since the sold-out crowd was packed together like Tokyo subway patrons.

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But as atmosphere, it seemed tailor-made for the fuzzed-out blues stomp of the Black Keys, for the first of two shows at the (not very) Kool Haus.

Hailing from Akron, Ohio, and consisting of guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, the Black Keys offer a stripped-down, roots-oriented take on alternative rock that's not too far from what the White Stripes used to do. But while the Stripes are as fond of back-hill country music as they are of Delta blues, the Keys - who are far more focused on the rhythm end of things - stick with blues and R&B.

It's tempting to make a joke at this point about the Stripes being the whiter band, except that there's nothing particularly black about the Keys' sound. Sure, Auerbach leans heavily on blues pentatonics when compiling the slow-grinding riffs that anchor much of the band's material, and Carney's drumming takes from such classic African-American beats as the stomp, the shuffle and the boogaloo.

But all that seems to come at a remove, as if the two aren't drawing from the blues so much as from artists who already went back to the originals. So when Auerbach breaks out his bottleneck for the slide guitar break in the Stagger Lee-derived Stack Shot Billy, what we hear doesn't evoke Elmore James or R.L. Burnside so much as Led Zeppelin (in particular, the change-up from In My Time of Dying).

That's not a bad thing, really, especially since Auerbach and Carney share Zep's fondness for such crowd-pleasers as churning, unconventionally accented blues riffs and lumbering, tom-tom spiked drum patterns, elements that were deployed to much enthusiasm during Busted and the show opening Thickfreakness. Such fuzz-coated heaviness gave the music a bit of a frat-house vibe, which in turn made the fans' sweaty enthusiasm seem all the more appropriate.

Where the Keys got in trouble was when they tried to extend their palette beyond basic blues. Their attempt at a dub-style reggae beat in Strange Times was awkward and unconvincing, while Auerbach's falsetto vocal on Everlasting Light sounded more strained than soulful. However well-intended, these nods toward a broader range of influences seemed more studious than heartfelt.

Of course, Brothers (the duo's current album) is essentially built around such gestures, with a broader stylistic and instrumental range than previous recordings. For the live versions on those tunes, Auerbach and Carney brought out bassist Nick Movshon and keyboardist Leon Michels, who fleshed out the sound without really adding much in the way of groove or authority.

Some songs, such as Chop and Change and the moody Ten Cent Pistol, benefited so much from the added instrumental colour that it would have been hard to imagine them with just guitar and drums. But others - She's Long Gone, for instance, or the stomping Howlin' for You - sounded a bit cluttered, so that it was with some relief that the Keys closed their set with the stripped down, fuzzed-out roar of Your Touch and I Got Mine.

Those may not have been the evening's most innovative selections, but judging from the crowd's hand-clapping, crowd-surfing response, innovation wasn't what the fans were there for.

 

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