Ten years ago, The Black Keys hauled their gear up the steps of Used Kids Records and played their first Columbus concert for a handful of fervent underground music acolytes. It wasn’t the humblest way to debut — the show got local press coverage, and lots of upstart bands play to empty rooms — but it still seems quaint compared with the gig the band will play Sunday, when they headline the Schottenstein Center in the thick of their first arena tour.
Dan Auerbach disagrees.
“They’re just larger in-stores,” said Auerbach, the duo’s purveyor of skronking blues raunch and buttery white-boy soul. Eventually, he relented somewhat amid references to KISS and Led Zeppelin: “There is some crazy feeling you get, like you’re a part of something that’s larger than life.”
When they emerged from the bowels of Akron with 2002 debut “The Big Come Up,” The Black Keys seemed like an afterthought, late-comers to a wave of guitar-slinging “The” bands heralding a so-called return of rock. Through perseverance and serendipity, Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have surpassed and transcended bands like The Strokes (defiled) and The White Stripes (defunct).
The Keys have survived and thrived long enough to spawn a whole new wave of think pieces anointing them as rock’s last hope, a mantle Carney more or less accepted in a January Rolling Stone interview, positioning the band’s meat-and-potatoes melodic blues bash-up as an alternative to both hipster-baiting indie and knuckle-dragging modern rock. Though they boast countless imitators, in the top-flight pop stratosphere they are a band alone.
“It’s crazy. I mean to have this sort of success — you couldn’t ever bet on it in a million years,” Auerbach said. “But to have had this success without having to have come up with a real shtick, it’s pretty awesome.”
The Keys’ shtick is, of course, having no shtick. Auerbach and Carney began making grimy lo-fi recordings in an attempt to emulate Wu-Tang producer The RZA. They worked off the cuff with as few frills as possible.
“You’re talking to somebody who made a record in one afternoon,” Auerbach said. “Nobody made records quicker than we did.”
They stuck to that approach until taking a sharp turn with 2008’s “Attack and Release,” which featured production from serial collaborator Danger Mouse. The producer helped the Keys push into cleaner and crisper sounds without snuffing out their tattered soul. They kept working with Danger Mouse, and with each successive release came more accolades, bigger crowds and more endorsement deals. (The latest: CBS is interspersing clips of the band performing “Gold on the Ceiling” with basketball highlights to promote March Madness.)
The breakout success of 2010’s “Brothers” shot them to Grammys and genuine rock stardom; by the time “El Camino” arrived last December, they were so popular that “Saturday Night Live” invited them back for the second time in a year. They’ve become a surefire festival headliner and this generation’s go-to shorthand for rock ’n’ roll.
Still, they haven’t forgotten their roots. Auerbach’s plans for his day in Columbus: “I go to Katzinger’s and I get a bowl of matzo ball soup, and I probably go to Used Kids.”