After a long vacation, rock ‘n’ roll has returned to radio. For the past five years boy bands, pop princesses, hip-hop and rap-metal fusion artists have successfully booted good old-fashioned rock right off the charts. However, fortified by the wave of blues-influenced, guitar-heavy bands like that candy-striped pair from Detroit, rock musicians are reclaiming their rightful place in compact disc collections everywhere. And the Black Keys, a duo from Akron, Ohio, is reaping the benefits.
But the Black Keys, comprised of high school friends Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney, have way more soul than their garage-rock counterparts. The band plays “stripped down rock ‘n’ roll that combines Memphis grit, Motor City stomp and Mississippi hollers,” according to their former record label, Alive/Total Energy Records. But it’s not what the public relations people say that counts. It’s reviews of the band’s 2002 release, The Big Come Up, as well as its latest, thickfreakness, in industry mainstays Rolling Stone, CMJ and Billboard that have created a buzz about the duo.
The Black Keys’ guitar-drums-no bass setup, as well as Auerbach’s deep, thick and authentically bluesy (read: not a Midwestern white boy) voice, has garnered comparisons to musicians as diverse as blues legend Muddy Waters, indie rockers the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, even punk icons the Minutemen and guitar impresario Jimi Hendrix. In spite of the similarities, Auerbach insists that he “tries not to copy anybody else’s voice” — a sentiment hard to believe, given that he drove cross-country to hang out at the feet of bluesmen Junior Kimbrough and T-Model Ford in their native rural Mississipi residences.
No doubt those influences helped make the decision about which label to sign to an easy one. Respected blues label Fat Possum Records signed the Black Keys earlier this year, to the disappointment of many a major. Auerbach said the blues and bluegrass are his style influences, while Carney has always been more into rock ‘n’ roll.
Those preferences forged together give the Black Keys the perfect sound — what rock ‘n’ roll was originally intended to be. Both men have influential family ties. Carney’s uncle is Ralph Carney, who has played the horns alongside Tom Waits and Beck, among others. Auerbach’s cousin, Robert Quine, played guitar with punk rocker Richard Hell and the Voidoids, as well as with Matthew Sweet.
The two toured the country with Sleater-Kinney in February — at the women’s request — then headed down to Texas for South by Southwest, where they earned even more praise. A few shows in Europe followed, where they recorded with famed producer John Peel. The Peel Session will air May 6th on BBC 1, and will be available for download on Peel’s Web site after the initial airing.
“Europe was a lot of fun, but we were really busy so we didn’t really get a chance to see much,” said Carney. “I can’t wait to go back.”
And go back, they will. They’re on the road supporting Beck through June, after which they return to Europe, followed by a headlining tour of the West Coast and another trip back to the UK to play the festivals in August. After that, Carney said they’ll continue touring the States into the Fall.
They’re handling their newfound fame well. “I don’t think we’re ‘famous,’ but it is weird to be recognized — but it only happens once a month or so,” Carney said. “I think every band hopes for some sort of praise, but the attention we have been getting is way beyond what we were hoping for.”
Despite their building success, both Auerbach and Carney want everyone to know that “we still can’t afford groceries.” As for their day jobs?
“They’re long gone,” Carney said.