Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Concert Series - Part IV: The Black Keys and Arctic Monkeys

It’s amazing what a year can do for a band.  I first heard of the Black Keys back in 2005 when I saw them play Lollapalooza at the recommendation of Kevin.  As I watched the blues rock duo from about five rows back, I immediately thought that they were a White Stripes knock-off.  But there was still something different about them and they came off as more straight forward than the Stripes.  This was unabashed, dirty, blues guitar rock and they did it very well.  I continued to follow the band over the years, albeit peripherally.  I did not see them again until December, 2010 at the House of Blues in Orlando which could probably hold no more than 2,000 people.  It was a great intimate set that drew equally from their older material and their recently released album Brothers, which would turn out to be their breakthrough album.  Little did I know that would be the last time I would be able to see them in such a small venue. 

I saw them again last summer at Bonnaroo and something had definitely changed in the six months since I last saw them.  They were now playing the main stage, an invitation and honor typically reserved for the biggest and most popular acts of the festival.  This was a much different experience than I had before.  The success of Brothers and most notably the hit “Tighten Up” had launched the band into the stratosphere.  I was never a huge Keys fan, but if I was, I’m sure I would feel some sort of disappointment and sadness.  I would be happy that such a great rock band is so successful (and I actually do feel that way because they are great), but the realization that I would never be able to see them in a small venue again and that the connection I once had with them would never be realized in the same way would be a very sad one.  Granted these two guys who have no doubt struggled to make ends meet for the past decade and are now formidable forces in the music industry deserve all the praise they get, and we should all be happy for them.  But there is something upsetting about this to the true fans and they could have mixed feelings about seeing them play a sold out headlining show at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.  This is where I found myself last Friday night, a mere 15 months after I had seen them in Orlando and with a sold out crowd that was ten times the size.  The view from the top before the show really emphasized this stark contrast.  The space just seemed so vast.

What made the concert even more appealing to me was that the opening act was one of my favorites, the Arctic Monkeys.  I had actually seen them in Orlando years ago when the first hit the scene.  Their first two albums are two of the best rock albums I have heard in the last ten years.  They have a great mix of rock and punk and are a breath of fresh air in an era when such music is hard to find.  I think their last two albums have fallen off from their first two, but they drew well from all four albums and they sounded great.  I was pleasantly surprised that they played for about an hour as most opening acts play for 45 minutes tops.  Maybe this happened because they are more prominent than typical openers, but I wasn't complaining.  I was even more excited to see them than the Keys. 

Not everyone was so excited.  As we walked in the venue we overheard the following conversation:

“Who’s the opening act?”

“This band called the Arctic Monkeys, and they kinda suck.”

Wow.  That person is so wrong.  It was also at that point when I noticed how many younger kids were at this show.  Another indication that the Keys have blown up; when you start to see a bunch of 15 year-olds at a concert, chances are that the band is pretty big.  It’s also funny because that conversation almost immediately reminded me of this scene:

Watching the Monkeys from a seat in the back up the upper reserve section, I was able to get a good view of the entire venue, and for a sold out show it was quite clear that the majority of the attendees couldn’t have cared less about the Arctic Monkeys.  It made me wonder about the different approach and mindset an artist must have as an opening act.  The knowledge that the fans are not really there to see you and that you’re there as kind of an afterthought must be very humbling.  But I’m sure that one of the goals is to win over some new fans and broaden that base.  Nonetheless, the band seemed like they were having a good time and enjoyed pumping the crowd up and it ended up being one of the best opening performances I have ever seen.  Although admittedly, I am a bit biased.

The Keys came on about a half hour after the Monkeys finished their set and by this time the crowd had filled in most of the arena.  Like the Monkeys, their set was fairly balanced as they drew from a variety of their albums.  It was also apparent that many of the fans were familiar with their older material which was nice to see.  The Keys have certainly developed into better songwriters and have focused more on creating more complex arrangements and productions of their albums which has proven to be a fairly distinct diversion from their grittier garage rock of their previous albums.  For me, it was good to hear the newer material as I really like their older stuff, but I do think it kinda blends together.  I recognized most of their songs, but couldn’t tell which albums they came from or recall their names.  Granted, I’m not entirely familiar with all their songs and am not a connoisseur, but I’ve heard enough.  It’s just good that when they do bust out the stripped down blues rock, they do it as good as or better than anyone else.

They played for about an hour and a half in total and although both shows in and of themselves were short, combining for 2 ½ hours of music made for a great night.  As we left the packed arena and walked into the streets of D.C. I was again reminded of the times I had seen the Keys in those smaller settings in the past, particularly the one that was just over a year ago.  It reminded me of this clip from the early 60’s of a young woman who lamented the fact that the Beatles had just started to blow up and she had the realization that she would never see them play the tiny Cavern Club in Liverpool like she had before.  It is this selfishness as a fan that I find as one of the most extraordinarily interesting aspects of loving music. 
For the biggest fan, there is nothing better than seeing your favorite artists play a small and intimate setting where you’re sitting just a few yards away from the stage.  These shows can be so energetic and can make one feel very special since it is clear to that fan that he or she knows a secret that few others do.  It becomes personal.  It becomes your band.  And it almost makes you feel like a better music fan for knowing this secret.  It’s childish and selfish, but it’s also incredibly energizing.  It’s how I felt when I first saw the Avett Brothers and I know that I will never be able to see them like that again.  I’ve been trying to be OK with this type of change and more welcoming rather than agitated and though I think I’m getting better, it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s somewhat sad that I’ll never be able to recapture that again.  I would venture to say that many of the old school Black Keys fans were struggling with that very issue last Friday night.  As this fan so poignantly states; "They don't belong to us no more".



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