The fact that vocalist and guitarist Dan Auerbach gives the Black Keys its soulful blues element, just as drummer Patrick Carney is the geek-chic indie kid who makes the band accessible to younger rock fans, is made more apparent when the duo plays at two venues as different from one another as Los Angeles’s Troubadour and Avalon. The two settings — the Troubadour is small and intimate, the Avalon is large and theater-style — allow each member the chance to shine at what he does best and defines whether the duo is a blues band or a rock band on that specific night.
Although such had been the case for the Black Keys’ September 13 show at the Troubadour, the Avalon’s September 14 audience didn’t include Matt Czuchry (who plays Logan Huntzberger, boyfriend to a Gilmore Girl), nor did it contain the drunken asshole who’d yelled at the members of Beaten Awake during their opening set to get offstage. And in the Avalon’s audience, there didn’t exist that teenage girl in the front row, unconsciously batting her eyelashes and smiling coyly at Auerbach, suggestively rubbing her finger along her shirt collar. In her place was the slightly more legal blonde who got off on the blues — hair in a sway, body following along, arms in the air and leading the way. Surrounding her was a less graceful sea of heads bobbing at varying intensities, the exception being the few people who decided that the pogo would be the best method of dancing along to the Keys.
Vocalist/guitarist Auerbach had taken ownership of the Black Keys’ Troubadour show, the venue’s small size allowing the duo to exercise less effort and allowing Auerbach’s smooth voice to come out as naturally as it was meant to, with particularly soft and vulnerable execution on new ballad “You’re the One.” And just as the band’s 2002 debut, The Big Come Up, had been closer to a straight-up blues album than any of its follow-ups because of its understatement, the band offered the real blues show at the Troubadour because the performance could afford to be a little lazier, a little sweeter. There wasn’t a crowd to entertain so much as a group with which to share an experience.
This wasn’t the case at the Avalon. The large theater’s raised volume and busy lighting gave the duo the setting it needed to become a real rock band for the night, meaning Carney had the chance to break down his hard-stomping beats under a spotlight not usually granted him on record. Squinting without his glasses, Carney came close to overpowering Auerbach’s guitar and voice, his choppy beats nearly drowning out Auerbach’s complementary fluidity. Some of the Black Keys’ best moments on record are the ballads and blues-heavy tracks (best example being the cover of Junior Kimbrough’s “My Mind is Ramblin,” drawn out and infused with far more emotion than the original). But although the two rock hard when appropriate, their live set mostly included their least involved songs, like “10AM Automatic” and “Your Touch,” where both instruments were choppy and didn’t have long, bent guitar notes for beat balance.
Auerbach improvised a few notes here and there to extend his guitar where there usually existed brief plucks, like on “The Breaks,” but save for “You’re the One,” audience size dictated that the band should play a fun rock show, not a set to show off the voice or guitar methods that separate Auerbach from other men his age. Even during “You’re the One,” the Avalon’s audience clapped along to intensify the song’s beat and talked through a good portion of it, preventing it from becoming the intimate performance it had been during the band’s previous night at the Troubadour. Auerbach is the half of the band that gives it a romantic, mature quality, and although he can growl as hard as Carney can hit his kick drum, being forced to reach a large crowd kept him from giving that crowd a reason to fall in love. If only the Black Keys were restricted to small venues, every fan would become that underage girl, suggestively running a finger along her shirt collar.