SAN FRANCISCO — Few rock bands today can fill an arena with the mere promise of riffs and catchy choruses. Yet that’s exactly what the Black Keys did Wednesday at the crowded Chase Center. Thousands gathered to shake their hips and sing along with the indie rock success story.
Touring in support of their latest album, ‘Let’s Rock,’ the Black Keys continue to earn their place among today’s hard working bands. ‘Let’s Rock’ marks the duo’s ninth full-length release amid a relentless ethos for road-dogging. Their tooth-and-nail approach to carving out a successful career fits their working class image.
To introduce “Fever,” guitarist-vocalist Dan Auerbach gave a brief shout-out to their dubious hometown of Akron, Ohio. The city is renowned for post-industrial economic depression. Yet, the band has always championed their rust belt roots. In true American fashion, the Black Keys turned this potential setback into a positive with ingenuity and perseverance. They even recorded an album in an abandoned Akron factory.
Gruff workmanlike melodic themes growled from an assortment of Auerbach’s guitars Wednesday as the band buzzed through an impressive number of crowdpleasers and chart hits. The unassuming duo took the stage with the air of middle-aged tradesmen starting their workaday. They opened with “I Got Mine,” filled with little tasty blues licks and meaty classic rock riffs. Behind them a neon sign displayed the band’s name before bulbs “shorted out,” leaving a lone “K” flickering. It was a cheeky nod to civic disrepair and working with available materials.
Drummer Patrick Carney turned in a stolid if unobtrusive performance. The workhorse drummer gamely powered through the 18-song set. Stationed atop a riser at stage-right, Carney laid down straightforward beats. Though he appeared a tad absentminded, he actually paid diligent attention on the sly. Auerbach gave cues by rocking out in Carney’s general direction, and rested a boot on the drum riser at key moments to signal a song’s induction or final refrain.
Crystallized gems of songwriting blasted out with assembly line consistency, stamped with the imprints of dance rock and big beat music. Sonically, the songs revolved around pentatonic mid-tempo riffs. Tone-saturated guitar solos soared in and added color. Scaled-up choruses recalled auditorium rallies, such as in the wordless chanted hook of “Howling For You.” During this tune, Auerbach twanged and improvised on a rockabilly vibe, getting the crowd riled up. Rare treats included the early barnstormer “10 A.M. Automatic” and the blue “Ten Cent Pistol.”
One highlight was catchy “Gold On The Ceiling,” on which orange and yellow pillars of light moved up and down above the band, hung from the rigging above the stage. Auerbach strapped on a gold-top Les Paul to jam the song’s signature hook. Cold magenta lighting bathed the band for the minor-key “Tell Me Lies,” a single from ‘Let’s Rock.’
Auerbach and Carney enjoyed added firepower from a backline of guitarists Steve Marion and Zach and Andy Gabbard. Each of the three stood on his own circular riser. Their isolation on their respective islands limited the stage dynamism. Nevertheless, they maintained a collective focus to match Auerbach and Carney in the front. The straight-ahead, no-frills arrangement and spare stage setup helped translate a seedy urban lounge atmosphere to arena rock dimensions.
The Black Keys kept the songs short and sweet. While it would have been illuminating to hear them get worked up and extend some intensified instrumental sections, there was a certain appeal to the no-nonsense approach. Auerbach, likewise, kept stage banter to a minimum. He introduced 2003’s “Thickfreakness” with the declamation, “We’re gonna go back down to the basement,” referencing the band’s early days. They then rolled into the song’s ZZ-Top-like shuffle, slathering it with thick, scuzzy guitar leads.
The band closed with the rollicking “Lonely Boy” before returning for a three-song encore that included “She’s Long Gone” and another pair of tunes from ‘Let’s Rock.’
Indie rockers Modest Mouse joined the Black Keys on the bill. Isaac Brock and co., who have mostly avoided the spotlight for the last decade, came out with fire in their belly and a seven-member band. A trio of percussionists, including founding member Jeremiah Green, lined the back row. Among them they manned two drum sets with rotating stints on the tambourine and djembe. Lisa Molinaro joined on violin and keys.
Admirably, Modest Mouse continues to mix up its set on each date of the tour, adding surprises along the way. Modest Mouse opened with “Third Planet,” one of its better known songs. Brock intoned the lyrics with his characteristic yelp and brought energy to the stage for the song’s loud-soft dynamics.
Cold blue stage lights framed the band for much of the performance, creating a slightly detached aura. Despite this visual turn and Brock’s lyrics exploring alienation, the band came across as fairly human and approachable on stage.
“Where are the sea lions, San Francisco? Were they bussed to another city?” Brock asked in his personable mumble. It was one of the few times he addressed the audience. He then launched into the obsucre “Never Ending Math Equation,” obliterating his colloquial foray with literary lyrical explorations and wiry guitar staccatos.
Brock donned a banjo for a pair of tunes: “Autumn Beds” and the creepy “Bukowski,” which featured an eerie guitar lead from Jim Fairchild. The set was rounded out with the hit “Float On” and an extended jam on weirdo treat “Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes,” where Brock exulted in the joy of creating noise.
Oakland’s Shannon & The Clams opened the show to a sparse crowd as concertgoers struggled to reach the Chase Center through DreamForce traffic. The band ran through a 25-minute set, using 1950s radio rock as a jumping off point to explore modern themes in its off-beat lyrics. Their latest album, Onion, was released under Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sounds label in 2018.