Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Black Keys, Cage the Elephant Combine for a Solid, Not Quite Spectacular Arena Rock Show -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Black Keys
w/ opening act Cage the Elephant
United Center, Chicago 
September 27 (2nd show on the 28th)

Having seen the Black Keys at the UC on Saturday night, I can now say that I've seen the Black Keys, one of the relatively few contemporary rock acts I felt I should check out in concert.

And now I can cross them off that list.

To be fair, I haven't been the hugest fan of theirs, despite owning and generally liking their past 3 albums, which each contain a number of good if not life-changing songs.

But I was rather surprised when the Keys sold out the United Center in March 2012, not knowing that the Akron duo had risen to that level of popularity in an age when few newish rock acts do. 

I didn't attend that show, but was even more surprised when my friend, Ken--largely a fan of Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy and other exalted classic rock and blues artists--went with his daughter and reported being tremendously impressed with the Black Keys in concert.

So when singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney--a.k.a. The Black Keys, abetted live by two additional musicians--booked the UC this year on their Turn Blue tour, I made a point of getting tickets. (They also filled the arena on Sunday night.)

Hoping that the live Keys would transcend their recorded material in a way that Arcade Fire has repeatedly (see this recent review), I was also excited by the specter of seeing Cage the Elephant. 

Thwarted from catching the Bowling Green, Kentucky-based band at a festival earlier this year due to a logistical entry-line nightmare, I had watched the live stream of their Chicago Lollapalooza appearance last month--and was very impressed.

So in entering the UC with my friend Paolo--with whom I've seen several stellar shows by longtime favorites, including Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Billy Joel, Bob Mould, Elvis Costello, Soundgarden, John Fogerty and Santana in recent months--I had high hopes for being dazzled by a couple bands that, along with Arcade Fire and the Killers, seemingly best hold the possibility of keeping good, old-fashioned rock 'n roll alive well-beyond the retirement of cherished geezers such as those mentioned in this long sentence, and others. 

But whereas I have seen all those artists multiple times, and will always hope to anytime they tour, in having now seen the Black Keys--as a headliner; my concert database reminded that I had seen them as an opening act in 2003 & '06--I think I'm good in having seen them...once.

Which isn't to imply they weren't enjoyable; they have enough decent songs, accompanied by impressive light and video effects, to satisfactorily fill 100 minutes.

The rather young crowd--and I was glad to see that so many high schoolers are still being indoctrinated to the rock concert experience--seemed to raucously love the Black Keys. 

I'm not here to tell them that the concert wasn't good, but especially in having seen so many of the greats, I can't say that the Black Keys were particularly special.

And they certainly didn't wow me on par with Arcade Fire.

It was definitely fun to hear several of the songs that rank among the Black Keys' best--"Gold on the Ceiling," "Howling for You," "Tighten Up," "Lonely Boy" and the new "Fever," "Weight of Love" and "Gotta Get Away" from Turn Blue.

There was nothing wrong with any of these renditions, nor those of other tunes filling out a 21-song setlist.

But the duo, and their songs, are sorely lacking in personality.

Too many of the tunes sounded too similar to all the others--also unlike Arcade Fire, the Black Keys don't seem to be deviating or growing all that much from album to album--and only the very best raised the excitement level.

Although Carney's drum kit was stage front alongside Auerbach, only the latter did any talking, which was rather perfunctory.

It would seem that an act that has risen from playing the Riviera to two sold-out UC gigs in less than 5 years might have some stories to tell or anecdotes to share, but Auerbach only offered base exhortations along the lines of "Let's go!"

And though several of their songs sound good, I couldn't help noting that there seems to be rather little depth, meaning or complexity to them, which became all the more apparent in hearing them en masse.

Unlike many of the artists I like more, I just didn't sense much soul, urgency, personal insight or societal topicality in all too many of the Keys' tunes.

So while their musicianship is impressive--they sonically filled the arena well--the kind of emotional engagement that characterizes most of the concerts I like best just never hit me in what was a solid, even strong, show but one that just felt far too by-the-book. (See the Black Keys United Center setlist for Saturday, September 27 here.)

As for Cage the Elephant, they reiterated my regard for them as one of the best--if not the best--rock bands consisting of members under the age of 35, but in no way made anyone (at least of my age) forget Led Zeppelin, U2, Pearl Jam or other truly great rock bands.

At the United Center, which they may well one day headline, Cage's 45-minute opening set was diminished by subpar amplification--i.e. they just weren't loud enough--and playing in front of a sparse crowd.

I wasn't as wowed as I was watching them at home during Lollapalooza, and while I knew all 11 songs they played enough to concur with Paolo that "they are a really good band," at this point I can't call Cage the Elephant a great one.

I appreciate that Matt Shultz is a high-energy lead singer who channels Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop--although his repeated bouts of crowd-surfing felt a bit gimmickry--and with comparable acoustics they may well have blown the Black Keys off the stage.

But to say that they're a really good rock band for this day and age is exactly the kind of qualified compliment it sounds like.

Without trying too hard, I could likely name at least 100, perhaps 200, rock artists whose best songs I would rather hear than anything Cage the Elephant has written so far.

So while "Spiderhead," "Aberdeen," "Back Against the Wall," "Shake Me Down," "Come a Little Closer" and others came off rather well at the UC, it wasn't as if they had me in a state of bliss.

Much like the Black Keys, Cage the Elephant gave me some hope that if I'm still in a condition to still go to rock concerts 10, 15 or 20 years hence, there may a smidgen of the hard rock genre left to see.

But it would be a whole lot cooler if a bunch of bands a whole lot better came along in the meantime.

In sum, this was a good concert for the youngsters, and--willing to take a flyer on almost anyone of note--Paolo and I had a decent enough time. But it wasn't one for the ages.

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