Dan Auerbach, an electric guitar slung around his neck, stood just to the side of center stage. “Let’s go back to Akron right now, down in the basement, and play some basement music,” he said to the howling audience arrayed before him, glowing phones and overpriced plastic cups of beer held aloft. With that, one half of the duo known as the Black Keys tore into “10 A.M. Automatic,” a bruising slab of sound that’s 15 years old — hailing from the pair’s 2004 LP Rubber Factory — but kicks as hard as the day it was cut.
The room in which Auerbach, drummer Patrick Carney and the three touring members of the Black Keys (guitarists Andrew Gabbard and Steve Marion, aka “Delicate Steve,” and bassist Zachary Gabbard) ripped through their satisfying 90-minute set Thursday was Fort Worth’s recently opened Dickies Arena. (Thursday’s performance marked the band’s first trip through town in five years, following a 2014 stop at Dallas’ American Airlines Center.)
The polished space — indeed, at one point Auerbach remarked, seemingly without irony, “This is the cleanest arena in the world” — is a far cry from the dingy, cramped Akron basement Auerbach invoked, but a room the Black Keys, through the sheer force of songcraft and execution, effectively transformed into a cruddy rehearsal space, bursting with possibility and exhilaration.
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Indeed, the Black Keys, returning from a five-year hiatus to support the release of the superb Let’s Rock, their latest full-length, have never really left the basement. It’s simply become a bigger and better outfitted space, one providing Auerbach and Carney the literal and metaphorical room to indulge in an endangered species: 21st-century arena rock, unfiltered and shorn of any pretense.
That’s not to say the Black Keys don’t make room for left turns and peculiar filigrees, a tasteful application of artful tendencies. The quintet easily moved from raucous hits like “Gold on the Ceiling,” a faintly scuzzed-up detour into mutant jazz-disco rhythms, to greasy blues riffs like “Howlin’ for You” to psychedelia-tinged odysseys like “Little Black Submarines.”
Through it all, Auerbach and Carney retain their visceral alchemy: Auerbach, his hair flying as he works the whammy bar on his multitude of electric guitars, fingers dancing along the fretboard, jerking and tearing out jagged solos, as his supple tenor carves out a place of its own, while Carney, taciturn and steady, perches on a stool as his hands and arms work a modest drum kit producing a massive sound.
“A prison shank turned into a ginsu blade” is how Auerbach characterizes the band’s Grammy-winning style in the press notes for Let’s Rock, and it’s not hard to see what he means.
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The stage design wasn’t overly showy, until it was: The night began with a simple curtain draped behind the five musicians and a few racks of lights flashing, until “Gold on the Ceiling” roared to life, the curtains fell away and the sort of spendy, splashy display commonly glimpsed in arena settings burst to life, full of rear projections, trippy visuals and splashes of retina-searing light.
The same could be said for the songs — while it was the heavy-rotation radio hits eliciting the most cheers from the crowd all night, the lesser known but no less lovingly rendered tracks, such as Let’s Rock highlight “Walk Across the Water” or the stuttering stunner “Next Girl,” cut just as deep as “Lonely Boy” or new single “Lo/Hi.”
Surely, whatever Auerbach and Carney dared dream in the earliest days of the Black Keys, entertaining each other in that Akron basement before finding themselves headlining enormous rooms the world over, has been surpassed by this stage of the game. All that’s left now is to continue wielding that wonderful shank, deftly piercing the mainstream and letting a little red-blooded rock ‘n’ roll leak in.