Music

The Black Keys with Arctic Monkeys, Power Balance Pavilion 5/05/2012

Power Balance Pavilion is the home of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, at least for now.  The team’s owners have been trying hard to hold the city hostage for a new arena, a flavor of legal thuggery that has been going on all over the United States for a number of years now.   The theory goes that by subsidizing an arena for a sports team, the city in question will reap the benefits of being a world-class destination because, you know, people are flying in from all over to see the Kings and leave their money here.  The other benefit, of course, is that said arena can be used for Toy Story on Ice, monster truck rallies, and concerts.

Sports arenas are notoriously shitty places for live music.  The seating is usually horrible and the acoustics are always worse.   I’ve seen lots of shows at Power Balance — more than I care to count — and can attest to the crappy acoustics.  There’s a reason that these places are known in the touring industry as “sheds.”

The sound is so bad that I avoid shows here.  As a younger person attending concerts was about something else — a pilgrimage, an opportunity to worship at the feet of icons, I don’t know — but I’m older and grouchier.  I go to shows now for solely the music, and that’s why I am willing to roll the dice tonight on the Black Keys.  They’ve been making good music for the last decade, and their new album, El Camino, rocks.  There’s some good voodoo going on with those boys, which I guess is why they seem to be everywhere these days.  Black Keys are a bar band done good, so let’s hear if they can rock this shed before the Maloof brothers pack up their little basketball team and run to whatever city falls for their grift.   That will be the end of Power Balance Pavilion, but it won’t be the end of live music in Sacramento.

photo (c) Jackson Stafford

It’s an arena crowd — lots of short shorts and tank tops.  A woman just walked past with “Husband Beaten” stencilled on her shirt.  Overall the crowd skews older,  thirty and over with quite a few toddlers in tow.  Lots of bald pates and gray heads mixed in with the hipsters and the rockers.  It’s a very strange mix, not at all what I would expect of a Saturday night show.  And then off to my left I see them just a few rows back from the mixing board:  two junior high schoolers with shaggy haircuts and faded black tees.  Thirty plus years ago that was Hal The Drummer and me.  Maybe all is not lost for The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam after all.

When the lights drop for Arctic Monkeys the place is only half full at best.  KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s The Way I Like It” blasts from the PA, strobe lights blind the crowd, and the band takes the stage.

Arctic Monkeys turn in a blistering, high energy set peppered with front man Alex Turner’s variations on the traditional “Hello Cleveland!” arena shout.  Turner goes to the [name of city]well probably twenty times during their fifteen song set:  “All right, Sacramento!” “How you doing Sacramento!” “I like saying Sacramento!”  I can’t help but think of the Spinal Tap episode of The Simpsons.  I want to scream, “He said our city’s name!  He validated us!”

But then I think about the young Guys In Black Tee Shirts who Jam sitting behind the mixing board.  They’re not jaded old men yet — maybe they’re taking Milhouse-like glee in the Sacramento shout outs.  I look over to see if they’re high-fiving, but they are no longer there.  They’ve been replaced by a good-looking thirty-something white couple.  The little tee-shirted bastards must have sneaked down from the cheap seats only to be bum rushed by Trey and Stephanie.  Damn, I miss Hal The Drummer.

photo (c) Jackson Stafford

 There’s something very familiar about Arctic Monkeys, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.  Maybe it’s the simple boom boom bap rhythm of “I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor” or the sort of punky vibe with which they carry themselves.  Maybe it’s the Eighties influence in “That’s Where You’re Wrong,” or the Brit Invasion reverb in “Crying Lightning,” I’m really not sure.  All I know is that they’ve tapped into something that works, and they are working the crowd.  They really feel like arena rockers.

Here’s the set list:

  1. Brainstorm
  2. This House Is A Circus
  3. Still Take You Home
  4. Library Pictures
  5. Don’t Sit Down Cuz I’ve Moved Your Chair
  6. The View From The Afternoon
  7. I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor
  8. Pretty Visitors
  9. If You Were There, Beware
  10. Teddy Picker
  11. Crying Lightning
  12. Flourescent Adolescence
  13. Evil Twin
  14. Brick By Brick
  15. R U Mine

While the roadies break down Arctic Monkeys’ gear and set up for the headliner the PA blasts classic Sixties soul, a perfect choice to whet our appetites for The Black Keys.  Almost right at 9:30 Auerbach and Carney hit the stage accompanied by Gus Seyffert on bass and John Wood on keyboards.  The set design is minimal.  Most noteworthy is Patrick Carney’s drum riser foregrounded at stage right, a clever move that preserves the sense of the band as a two-piece even with the extra touring musicians in the background.  The standard arena screen projects abstract patterns and high contrast images of Auerbach and Carney periodically, which helps to fill the massive interior of the basketball arena.

photo (c) Jackson Stafford

This of course is the real challenge tonight:  How do you scale up an intimate two-piece blues-based band to play to ten thousand seats?  Material isn’t going to be a problem — The Black Keys’ songs are amazing, and Dan Auerbach’s voice is as crisp in person as on record.  They open with a rearranged version of “Howlin For You” that gets the crowd on its feet.  Auerbach repeatedly jumps onto Carney’s drum riser, playing Carney as his stage foil.  This remains his go-to move throughout the night, along with minimal stage patter along the lines of “let’s get it going.”

They sound great, no question.  Six songs in the traveling musicians are dismissed and the partners play a true two-man set that kicks off with “Thickfreakness.”  “Girl Is On My Mind” is up next.  Solid, bluesy, nothing to complain about.  By the time they hit “I”ll Be Your Man” the energy in the room is noticeably lagging.  As strong as the songs are, they’re just no match for the scale of the venue.  They’re too intimate.  I drift off down a bunny hole, wondering how comedians like Steve Martin and Richard Pryor ever played the sheds.  By the time the band closes this part of the show with “Your Touch” I’m desperate for something, anything.  Project something on that big screen — anything to help fill the space.

With the full travelling band back on stage, the Keys fire up “Little Black Submarine.”  The crowd sings along–  I even see some lighters.  It’s a true arena moment, and the highlight of the night.  The only piece that comes close to matching “Submarine’s” energy is “Everlasting Light,” their first encore.  The band pulls out a huge mirror ball for this cut — the thing must be ten feet in diameter — and floods Power Balance with dazzling light.

They close the night just the two of them playing “I Got Mine,” and it works brilliantly.  Where the two-man band sucked the life out of the middle of the set, it’s a perfect coda to the night — the punctuation mark that reminds us just how great Auerbach and Carney are as a team.

When the house lights come up Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” ushers us to the parking lot.  A clever choice to end the night, but unfortunately for me it’s one more reminder that a blues-based band needs more than just great songs played well to fill a giant hangar like Power Balance Pavilion.  Making the transition from small venue to arena requires a strong front man who can work a crowd — maybe a little healthy competition for the spotlight, I don’t know.

Some things are best left small.   I understand the financial pressures.  If a band gets to be a big enough draw that they can sell 10,000 tickets, they can fill an arena for one night or a thousand seater for ten nights, and who has time for that?  But great songs just aren’t always enough to fill the space of a basketball arena.  I remember the late Michael Hutchence once saying at a show “it is your party, we’re just the band.”  He probably said the same thing every night, but we believed it and whatever shed I was in on that night became as small as a nightclub dance floor.  That’s the power of a good front man.

Here’s The Black Keys full set list for their May 5, 2012 Sacramento show:

  1. Howlin For You
  2. Run Right Back
  3. Same Old Thing
  4. Dead And Gone
  5. Gold On the Ceiling
  6. Thickfreakness
  7. Girl Is On My Mind
  8. I’ll Be Your Man
  9. Your Touch
  10. Little Black Submarine
  11. Money Maker
  12. Strange Times
  13. Nova Baby
  14. Ten Cent Pistol
  15. Tighten Up
  16. Lonely Boy

Encore:

  1. Everlasting Light
  2. She’s Long Gone
  3. I Got Mine

6 replies »

  1. Terrific detail, both aural and visual. You had me in “The Omni” of my black tshirt teens. Few shows there have managed to bypass the anaemic acoustics; only because of strong, ego-of-a-toddler, “me, me, me” masters of ceremony. Yes, I’m remembering the 80s versions of Van Halen and The Police, amongst others.

    I’ve been wanting to own some of The Black Keys’ music for a while now. I shall use your set list to review the choices from Steve Jobs’grande mixed tape in the sky.

    Like

  2. All I knew of Arctic Monkeys was “deedledeedledeedledeedle fishnets, deedledeedledeedledeedle nightdress” so I put on “Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor” and my immediate response was, “Oh, HEllo..” You’ve spurred me to investigate them more. As for The Black Keys, they go without saying, real heavy blues rock revivalists. I always maintain that if you can rock out with only two people, your sound is enduringly legit. Thanks for being ever musically vigilant!

    Like

  3. I like both Arctic Monkeys and Black Keys, but I had never necessarily thought of them touring together. Huh.
    I appreciate the point you are making about some acts, no matter how superb their musicianship, not really being suitable for arenas. Really appreciate the set lists too. I actually haven’t listened to Arctic Monkeys in a while and now I am having a crave….

    Like

Leave a Reply to James Stafford Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.