Live Music + Gig Reviews

The Black Keys @ Brixton Academy, London

8 May 2024

American rock duo mix songs from new album Ohio Players alongside selections from their past with help from Noel Gallagher

The Black Keys (Photo: Larry Niehues)

The Black Keys (Photo: Larry Niehues)

The Black Keys’ 12th studio album Ohio Players (released last month) shows the Akron, Ohio duo still have plenty to offer. It’s been quite a journey for singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney. After self-producing four lo-fi garage blues albums in the noughties, they teamed up with producer Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) and hit the commercial jackpot with three huge hits in the 2010s, while their most recent three albums returned to their roots music. Now, with Ohio Players – bursting with instantly appealing tunes – they are once more polishing their gritty rock with a sophisticated pop veneer.

Strangely, though, The Black Keys’ new album is not foregrounded in their short European tour this spring (before continuing across the States in the autumn). They were slated to play the first concert at the new Co-op Live in Manchester – the UK’s biggest indoor arena containing almost 25,000 people – at the end of April, but this has been postponed to later in May after its much-publicised delayed opening. However, with a sold-out three-night residency, they are the second band back at Brixton Academy (which has just reopened after more than a year since the Asake gig tragedy when two people died in a crush). The enthusiastic fans in the 5,000-capacity south London venue saw them in a setting that well suits their music.

Auerbach and Carney, both dressed in loose, casual clothes and wearing dark glasses, arrive on stage to thunderous applause. They share the limelight side by side at the front, with the supporting musicians (keyboardist, rhythm guitarist, bassist, and percussionist) at the back – it’s a long time since they performed just as a duo. They’re obviously delighted with the response, but – with the exception of the obligatory “How you doin’?” and occasionally announcing the next song – Auerbach does not waste time with chat as they get down to business in a superb, muscular 90-minute set packed with heavy riffs and deep grooves. Carney is surrounded by a massive drum kit which he commands with propelling urgency, while Auerbach just about avoids tripping up on the thick extension cable during impassioned guitar solos.

The show is very much a trawl through The Black Keys’ 20-plus-year back catalogue rather than a promotion of their new work. It’s full of great songs, but it seems odd to play only four of the 14 tracks from the excellent Ohio Players. Do they not have confidence in their new record, or do they doubt the audience will be familiar enough with it yet for it to take off live? Indeed, the first two new songs do not appear until midway through the set, while the other two are encores.

Both released as singles, This Is Nowhere – with its low, distorted guitar notes grumbling underneath the dreamy melody – and the snappily rhythmic Beautiful People (Stay High) that gets feet moving – boosted by the contribution of a trumpeter and saxophonist – go down well. For Only Love Matters and On The Game at the end, the band are joined by co-writer Noel Gallagher, a somewhat surprising connection on The Black Keys’ most collaborative album for which Beck co-wrote half the songs (and which also features rappers Lil Noid and Juicy J).

The band actually kick off with a single from their transitional breakthrough album Attack And Release: the bluesy rocker I Got Mine, opening with brash chords and hammer-like drumbeats, and including an unexpected lengthy psychedelic bridge. Three of the first four albums are also represented by one track. They include the swaggering, riff-heavy Your Touch (showing The Black Keys’ early debt to The White Stripes), the Chicago blues-style Heavy Soul and Have Love Will Travel (a raucous cover of the Richard Berry doo-wop song made famous by garage pioneers The Sonics). On their rocked-up version of the Motown classic I Heard It Through The Grapevine – which they often play live – Auerbach shows off his slide-guitar skills.

There are also outings for more recent songs like the ZZ Top-like Lo/High and the raunchy Wild Child. But, inevitably, the songs from Brothers, El Camino and Turn Blue get the biggest visceral reaction from the crowd, such as the glam-stomp Gold On The Ceiling with its fuzz guitar, the groovy Tighten Up and the sultry Fever. Little Black Submarines starts off quietly with the spotlit Auerbach solo on soulful vocals and acoustic guitar, then the whole band joins in as the song explodes.

After a short break the band return, with Auerbach introducing their special guest: “We love him. You love him. He’s a national treasure. Please welcome Noel Gallagher!” Gallagher fist bumps Auerbach, modestly acknowledges the audience cheers, then stands between Auerbach and Carney but slightly behind. Strumming guitar and singing backing vocals, his contribution is slightly underwhelming, truth be told – though his melodic influence on the two songs is apparent. After he has left, The Black Keys finish with perhaps their best-known song Lonely Boy, with the whole of Brixton Academy coming together in celebration of one of America’s finest bands of the last few decades.

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