The Black Keys as a duo have been in a state of hibernation for nearly two-and-a-half years now, after a decade of releasing records at a dizzying, Beatles-like pace. Drummer Patrick Carney has taken this down time to settle into family life, getting hitched to Michelle Branch and now expecting a child. Frontman Dan Auerbach, on the other hand, has continued to churn out new music in Carney’s absence, first touring with his side project The Arcs in 2016 and later releasing the solo collection Waiting On A Song last summer. We were on hand as the subsequent tour rolled through Toronto on Friday night.
The kiddies who turned out hoping to see choice cuts of Black Keys’ repertoire in an intimate setting would no doubt be leaving baffled, educated, disappointed or perhaps a cocktail varying degrees of the three descriptors. That was not what this night was to be about.
Auerbach’s 7-piece backing band known as the Easy Eye Sound Revue boasted veritable rock n’ roll pedigree. Elucidating the audience later in the show, Auerbach would say, “these are some very important people up here. They play on some of my favorite records. Aretha, Elvis.” The cast of Tennessee studio stalwarts comprised of guitarist Russ Paul, bassist Dave Roe, keyboardist Bobby Wood and drummer Gene Chrisman. Together their collective rap sheet also features credits on recordings by Johnny Cash, Elton John, and Dusty Springfield. “These are guys who haven’t toured in 20-plus years,” Auerbach told the Orange Country Register in a February interview. “I just can’t believe they’re out. I can’t believe they considered it, let alone said yes.”
Musically, the themes of the evening would transition seamlessly through old-school rock n’ roll, blues, spritely folk and would even touch on bluegrass and Motown as they would integrate guest performers throughout the evening. Auerbach’s loose-fitting blazer and partially unbuttoned shirt played into the tragically embattled bluesman archetype as the band took to a stage littered with Afghan rugs and Supro amps commencing with the pleasantly indelible Waiting On A Song. “It’s so great to be here” he said with but the slightest grin. What followed was the Cat Stevens-esque Malibu Man which was rendered to include a sludgy duelling guitar interplay between Auerbach and Paul.
The audience was particularly keen on Shannon Shaw (of opener Shannon and the Clams) as she jumped into the mix for a pair of songs. “I just gotta say, you guys are really the best crowd of the tour,” she ingratiated to cheering approval. Her guttural soul cadences during Broke My Own were imposing as Auerbach stepped out of the spotlight, as he was wont to do intermittently.
“You look very comfortable out there,” Auerbach later commented before turning to stage left to introduce a friend. “From Louisiana, Robert Finlay!” A couple of stagehands helped guide the blind and obscure 65-year-old soul singer to centre-stage. Having just recently re-emerged onto the scene following decades of dormancy, his presence was a jolt of electricity in a room which had remained predominantly taciturn up until this moment. Adorned in but the finest ostentatious cowboy attire (leather pants, western shirt, oversized belt buckle and bolo tie), the enigmatic trouper serenaded the sold-out audience with the raspy, weathered soul of a bygone era. There was a tangible call-and-response rapport between Auerbach and Finlay during the latter’s song Three Jumpers. “The old man dreams the dream but the young man sees the vision,” Finlay then said, praising the frontman. “Thank god this man can see.”
Finlay’s effervescently candid shtick and storytelling were amusing as Auerbach again took to the shadows. In his finer moments his charisma was gravitational. With that said, Finlay’s harsh falsetto vocals, though certainly in-key, grew to be occasionally tiresome, particularly during Holy Wine. But there was a discernible deference here and the audience seemed more than willing to indulge the superfluous screeches of this hardened, impassioned vocalist during his moment to shine.
A rowdy cover of J.J. Cale’s Don’t Go To Strangers was one of the finer moments of the evening. Auerbach’s wahing improvised solos rang out over rolling blues riffs as the audience once again sprung to life. He opted to end the main set with the playful merriment of Shine On Me, raising his acoustic guitar high in the air as the entirety of the band sang out the chorus.
The encore saw a return to the stage for Finlay. “Thank you for letting me be myself. That’s my testimony,” he remarked. He then led the band through two more tracks before they all took their leave. All but Auerbach, who, leaning heavily into his microphone, took a solitary vigil as a single spotlight illuminated him from behind. This was the forlorn vibrato and folky finger-picking of Goin’ Home and a beautifully apposite finale.