The Black Keys and the Blues
With the release of their latest and most upbeat album, El Camino, we’ve seen the Black Keys complete their transformation from a dirty garage blues band to major festival headline material.
It’s the latest stage of an evolution that seemed extremely unlikely back in the days of the Big Come Up when the Black Keys were still cranking up the fuzz pedals and trying to shake off persistent comparisons with a certain other bluesy two-piece with a colour in their name. Of course the White Stripes have now called it quits and the Black Keys have inherited the crown as America’s favourite white boy blues band but the connection hasn’t been put to bed just yet. ”ËRenaissance Man’ Jack White now runs the show in Nashville, which is coincidentally the place where the band and producer, Danger Mouse recorded and honed the polished and plucky sounds of El Camino.
But the remarkable ascent of the Black Keys actually reminds me less of that of the White Stripes and more of that of Nashville’s own favourite sons, The Kings of Leon, who themselves could have been mistaken for one trick ponies at the time of their emergence.
Youth and Young Manhood’s brand of Southern fried, booze fuelled party rock had the critics swooning when it came out but few expected the Kings of Leon to return with straightening tongs and a set of songs that would demonstrate song writing versatility.
The media have always delighted in bunching bands together and calling it a movement and this has never been more apparent than at that time. The Kings of Leon found themselves at the centre of a transatlantic ”Ëmovement’ of apparently similar bands but with the only real interesting similarity being that so many of them demonstrated an astute ability to do a one album impression (albeit a good impression) of their favourite retro bands.
The Strokes revelled in the Velvet Underground comparisons, the money men behind the Vines chose to push along an impression of Kurt Cobain, Franz Ferdinand seemed to fancy themselves as some kind of Scottish Kraut Rock throwbacks and the Libertines soaked up whatever flattery they could get but importantly, none of them really got over the second hurdle. Love them or hate them Kings of Leon have without a doubt proved themselves capable of doing a lot more than muddying the Creedence Clearwater. Aha Shake Heartbreak has the rare accolade of being a second album that betters its predecessor and it was an album that triggered a burst of successful subsequent efforts that catapulted the Kings of Leon into the mainstream. By the time they’d finished touring Only by the Night they found themselves capable of filling arenas normally reserved for Green Day or U2.
The Black Keys are a long way off that kind of popularity but the demand for catchy, danceable rock music is massive and it’s clear that they’re a band at the peak of their powers. Kings of Leon found themselves on top of the pile relatively quickly while the Black Keys trudged through the sludge for longer, several albums demonstrated their dedication to the Mississippi wailing they grew up with. They may have spent a long time perfecting their dirty blues basics but with Brothers they made the choice to step it up and see what kind of racket they could make with some more volts behind them, they’ve gone all out with keyboards, female vocals and backing guitar and found a sound recipe that caught the ear of the masses. The band has barely been off the road since and they’ve wasted no time introducing the follow up release. I’d be surprised if advice such as “strike while the iron’s hot’”Â wasn’t muttered at some point in the depths of that record company building. It’s almost like they’re being groomed for the arenas, told that they’ve bled the blues dry but now it’s time to pick up more instruments and show what they can do”Â¦
Three’s a Crowd.
”Â¨There are many reasons for the lack of two piece rock n roll band with the main one being it makes it very hard to stay interesting. Some of my favourite bands are two pieces but the feeling always exists that they quickly hit walls that can’t be broken. (I often wonder what Tweak Bird would sound like If they had another sibling or whether Death from Above 1969 would have lasted longer with a few extra strings.)
Even the White Stripes, a band obsessed with simplicity, eventually began to break away from their devotion to stripped down guitar and drum Rock’ n Roll towards the end. For a long time Jack White insisted that the band would call it quits rather than attempt to recreate dingy bar intimacies in echoic arenas. His talent was his ability to improvise and he did find ingenious ways to keep the music interesting but it was necessary to compromise somewhat on the basic elements of rock n roll. It has been said that to make rock music you only need two instruments and if you have more than two you might as well have ten. Given the wholesome sound that the Black Keys have created for themselves it would seem that they agree with that notion.
There will be fans of the Black Keys who will be disappointed to see the band take the direction they have. It’s hardly Dylan plugging in for the masses or Metallica going through a hillbilly midlife crisis but it’s certainly a departure from their usual sound and I would argue, a completely necessary one.
For many years they paid homage to the greats of the Mississippi Delta. On their debut album they sounded like what they probably were, two kids thrilled to be playing the music they grew up with.
On opener ”ËBusted’, Auerbach grinds through a Burnside riff like he’s played it a thousand times before, the notes fixed onto his fingertips before he launches into Kimbrough’s bouncy ”ËDo The Rump’. And it’s instinctive, like a band not even thinking about it. In fact for me they were at their most hypnotising on their later celebration of Kimbrough’s work, Chulahoma where they sounded like a band who had just picked up their intruments and jammed the songs out in a garage, one after the other. It was a recording that prompted the late bluesman’s family to praise them, “Of all that played it, you’re the only ones that played it the way Junior played it.”Â And it’s in that kind of music that I start to understand what Hendrix was on about when he said of the blues “It’s easy to play it but it’s hard to feel it.”Â
Of course playing covers has always been an important part of the blues, a type of music borne out of passed down songs from the fields. Songs like ”ËOl Black Mattie’ or the ”ËDeath Letter Blues’ are like measuring blocks, hearing a band play a song like that is as good a test as any.
But for the Black Keys there was a danger that their covers were outshining their own music and it would be a shame for musicians as talented as the Black Keys to be regarded as little more than white ambassadors for a genre of music, a UB40 for the Blues, if you will. With the flourishing sound of El Camino they’ve taken a bold step out of the blues shelter and they should be commended for it. They’ve finally demonstrated that they can put their own spin on things and mould songs every bit as distinctive as their sound, which has never been in doubt.