The Black Keys At Molson Canadian Amphitheatre in Toronto on Thursday
"Will you write that all the girls are up dancing," asks one of the young ones, grooving a bit herself, after learning that I was covering the show. "Absolutely," I reply. Because I already knew that was exactly what I would be writing about - the girls, on their feet, at a blues show.
Onstage, the Black Keys, two unassuming yet fierce white boys from Akron, Ohio, were deep into something spooky and staggering: Howlin' For You, with the crowd singing along to the rising "da-da-da-da-da" call and then quickly the falling "da-da-da-da-da" response, had a thudding, shuddering primal beat - reminiscent of Gary Glitter's hockey-arena anthem Rock and Roll Part 2 - and an earthy, hypnotic, electric psychedelic-blues vibe. "Mockingbird, can't you see," guitarist Dan Auerbach sang mannishly, "little girl's got a hold on me like glue - baby, I'm howlin' for you."
In the kingdom of moles, a mole is king. And in a world of bluesy garage-rock, which is small, there's a new daddy. It's the Black Keys, who, after a decade of working at it, have graduated from the clubs to the big summer sheds. The Molson Canadian Amphitheatre was full of a young, hungry audience; somewhere the late Howlin' Wolf, the Chicago blues hero, was smiling.
"Our record resonates with 50-year-olds, 30-year-olds, 15-year-olds," drummer Patrick Carney recently told Mojo magazine. "There's very few heartfelt records, and the records that are, they resonate more." The album he was referring to is Brothers, a breakthrough recording that earned the stomp-swamp-and-swagger duo three Grammy Awards.
The crowd roared most at the familiar material of that album. Performing with the occasional help of a bass player and an organist, the Black Keys didn't offer much in the way of bells or whistles, though Auerbach did himself whistle the whistle intro to the sexy soul-rock of Tighten Up.
The amphitheatre stage had a couple of screens, some white Christmas lights overhead and a bunch of giant lights at the back. An industrial-size disco ball twirled during Everlasting Light, and the Keys offered up some lighter fare in the form of Act Nice and Gentle - a Kinks cover from the duo's 2004 album Rubber Factory that served as an appreciation for the genial style of Mississippi John Hurt.
The Black Keys roll and tumble to a cocksure brand of psychedelic garage-blues that owes sound debts to the Memphis Stax label and the hill-country juke joints just to the south. The pasty boys are the sons of Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, with electric Rust Belt crud added in, for gritty effect.
The North Mississippi AllStars never made it over the hump, and the White Stripes have retired, leaving the Keys as the hip crowd's favourite blues descendents. Young women, a faction that doesn't show up for B.B. King and doesn't make it out to the Silver Dollar Room, were out in force on Thursday night. They seemed to get it, more so than the boys. It's just as Howlin' Wolf knew it to be: "What the men don't know, the little girls understand."
The Black Keys play Ottawa Blues, Friday; Quebec City Summer Festival, Sunday; Montreal, July 11; London, Ont., July 12.
The set list
Girl Is On My Mind
Stack Shot Billy
Act Nice and Gentle
Chop and Change
Howlin' for You
She's Long Gone
Ten Cent Pistol
I'll Be Your Man
I Got Mine