Dan Auerbach may or may not have made a deal with the devil at the crossroads, but the Black Keys' singer did venture to the Promised Land, the muddy banks of the Mississippi, to hone his signature guitar tone. His journey to R.L. Burnside's "Bad Luck City," the Delta region responsible for the electric blues Auerbach lovingly refers to as "the good stuff," began while he was briefly enrolled at University of Akron in Ohio.
"When I went to college, I just kind of fell into the blues and became obsessed with it," Auerbach says during a recent drive through Indiana as part of the band's current tour with Dr. Dog, which reaches the Granada Theater on Friday. "I was digging as deep as I could trying to find stuff that I liked, because there's lots of bad blues music out there. You have to weed through it."
Auerbach credits one artist in particular, Junior Kimbrough, for changing the way he listened to and thought about music. "I remember at that point in time I thought it was the best music ever recorded," Auerbach says. "I just stopped going to class altogether and would just sit in my room and listen to his records."
Earlier this year, the Black Keys paid homage to Kimbrough, who passed away in 1998, through the release of Chulahoma, an EP featuring six reinterpretations of the Mississippi kingpin's classic cuts including "My Mind Is Ramblin'" and "Meet Me in the City." In the liner notes, Auerbach vividly recalls the first time he heard Kimbrough's deep blues: "There was a black and white photo on the front cover. It was of an old man seated by a jukebox. He was playing an electric guitar while some women, frozen in time, swayed to the music he seemed to be making...There, alone in my room, I was transformed. It was by this man and the music on that CD. I've heard people say this before, that they were forever changed by so and so, by this or that, but I have to tell you truthfully, fuck all that...I'll be forever grateful, forever in awe and forever indebted to Junior Kimbrough."
It wasn't long before Auerbach was making regular pilgrimages to the Mississippi hills in an attempt to dig up the roots that artists such as John Lee Hooker and Hound Dog Taylor once left behind. "I do the same route every time," Auerbach claims. "I stop in Nashville, go down Music Row, catch some bluegrass music. I stop in Memphis, visit Shangri-La Records and see some soul musicians, and end up in Mississippi trying to see some of this music I always listen to." One trip culminated with Auerbach sharing the stage with the legendary T-Model Ford in Greenville. "I tracked him down," Auerbach fondly remembers. "We did a little house party, and then we played at a little club later that night too."
Auerbach's immersion into Muddy Waters and the blues is the Black Keys' definitive quality, the magic in their potent potion of "heavy soul" that separates them from every other two-man band of past or present. He plays guitar the way Flannery O'Conner once wrote, as if his hands were being guided by some sort of divine spirit, his conviction and dedication exuding from the sacred steel. It is timeless, with a natural boogie that is devoid of pretense or cliché.
Junior Kimbrough's widow, Mildred, testifies to this claim through an answering machine message on a hidden track at the end of Chulahoma: "You're about the only ones that really, really play like Junior played his records, and I'm very proud. It makes me feel very proud."
Covering Kimbrough and tapping into the sound of the South is nothing new for the Black Keys. The duo's 2002 debut for Alive Records, The Big Come Up, features a raw, hip-shaking rendition of Kimbrough's "Do the Rump," while the rest of the album tackles the familiar blues themes of whiskey and women, hard times and deep rivers. The familiar fuzz that rattles from the amplifiers sounds akin to something "Down on Dankin's Farm" back when Eisenhower was in office.
The Keys' vintage appeal is due largely to the band's lo-fi, self-produced recording style. Thickfreakness, the group's critically acclaimed sophomore effort, was recorded in drummer Patrick Carney's basement with a Tascam 388 eight-track recorder in a mere 14 hours. Considering the conditions—microphones lodged in grimy sinks, cinder-block walls, dim fluorescent lighting—the songs have the same feel as Robert Pete Johnson holed up in the Angola State Penitentiary or Thelma Mae Joseph singing a cappella over a running washing machine. The records crack and pop as Auerbach's guitar pushes past the threshold; the bass-less feedback flair seemingly begs to be played on vinyl.
"They're all nice snapshots of me and Pat together in the basement or in the Rubber Factory or wherever we were for the recording," Auerbach says.
Similar sentiments are expressed in regard to the group's view on bootlegging. The Keys actually encourage their fans to tape their shows so long as they don't sell them for profit and they forward a copy to the band. "We hold on to everything that we get sent; I've got stacks of them at home," Auerbach adds. "They're always just super cool, these snapshots of us in a certain place at a certain time. It's a way to archive the experience and enjoy it from a different perspective."
It's safe to say that the band's latest, and first for Nonesuch Records, Magic Potion is the Black Keys fermented and aged to perfection. Carney's incessant white noise inebriates the sensual soul of "The Flame" and "Strange Desire" as Auerbach moans in the moonlight and picks up the slide guitar on "Give Your Heart Away." Conveying Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Levee Camp Blues," the songs "Modern Times" and "Goodbye Babylon" offer mournful eulogies for their flooded Promised Land.
"I think I knew all along that we were doing something special," Auerbach concludes. "People still can't really figure out how to describe us or where we belong."
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