A lot has happened in the 12 years since The Black Keys last played in Arkansas.
The duo – we’ll get back to that word in a minute – has released five albums and won five Grammy Awards in that span for their blues-focused garage rock. Childhood friends Dan Auerbach (guitar) and Patrick Carney (drums) continue as a major headlining draw and make national news for personal matters. And Wakarusa, the festival in Arkansas they performed at in 2010, ceased operations in 2015.
Which means that their Thursday night (Oct. 14) appearance at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion in Rogers was a big deal. The local crowd treated it as such. It might not have been a sellout, but it was close – I didn’t see much open real estate in the venue’s lawn area, and there were certainly no openings in the seatback area nearer to the stage.
Like they did during their last appearance in the state, the band focused on the album “Brothers,” the Danger Mouse-produced, Grammy-winning album that straddles the line between their garage rock beginnings and their headlining status. They played seven songs from that album in 2010 and six in 2022. It holds up – songs like “Howlin’ for You” and “Tighten Up” still sound sharp and still elicit singalongs.
If there was an alternative focus of Thursday’s show, it was the middle section where they switched supporting band members to dig into the 2021 album “Delta Kream.” A tribute to Delta blues, the band rolled through five successive cover songs from that recording and featured studio partners Kenny Brown on slide guitar and Eric Deaton on bass. It might be Auerbach’s favorite album, but it was also a midpoint for the show. That’s not meant to be faint praise or a deep criticism. It was all well done, but it’s not what people came to see.
The Black Keys have maintained the uncanny ability to write a song or two per album that really rock. Whether it is “Wild Child” from their 2022 album “Dropout Boogie” or “Lo/Hi” from “Let’s Rock” in 2019 or another single from further back in the catalog, The Black Keys continue as hitmakers.
They’ve grown to the point that they now feature four touring members to help them bring their songs to life. I find it odd that while the guest musicians from the “Delta Kream” sessions were mentioned by name, those behind the primary duo during the rest of the set were not. That said, the duo are the stars of the show. Auerbach does his own stunt work on guitar. His tone was clean, and his slide work never let him down. Carney spent much of the time watching Auerbach – as we all did, honestly – looking for cues about when to pick up or slow down. It’s clear they’ve been playing together for a long time.
Now 20 years into their career, the Black Keys struck me as unhurried on Thursday. It’s not so much about the number of songs they played, as they got in 22 in a little more than 90 minutes of music. It’s more about how they played their songs. And while that seems like an odd thing to say considering how aggressively the primary musicians work their instruments, the performance felt a bit subdued. The band altered tempo often, and as they did, they often drew things down instead of picking them up. In a way, if felt like a band congratulating themselves for writing good songs and growing up – that bar band urgency is gone. The crowd reflected that energy. The band always received appropriate praise after each song, but it was a calm affair most of the evening.
It was likewise strange to see opener Band of Horses in an outwardly pleasant mood (and I’ve seen them many times). Their music is sometimes dour, and their biggest hit, “The Funeral,” is reported to be about the lead singer’s distaste for the social pressures of family gatherings around the holidays. But lead singer Ben Bridwell and his band seemed content to play that song and several others from a 15+ year career that includes enough great songs to remind you that you’re going to underestimate them all over again until you remember to play them the next time.
Imagine the bands from my own urgent indie rock era working to find a sense of peace as they age into their 40s. We should all be so lucky – and we should always remind ourselves that bands get to grow up, too. A lot of things have changed over the past 12 years. And while the urgency may have left, live music never stops reminding us why we chase it – and why the AMP keeps itself full year after year.