When the Black Keys cancelled their previous Australian sojourn as part of the Big Day Out, they were a mid-tier name on the bill, squeezed into a late afternoon slot on a side stage. Their sixth album Brothers had taken off in the States, and the duo stated that they were exhausted from promoting it around the world, and “An arduous year of touring and promotion has drained the band and necessitated time off”.
These days, in the wake of the follow-up El Camino, the Black Keys have got used to be being busy – single 'Lonely Boy' is a genuine anthem and the band are bigger than they ever have been, with sold-out arena shows around the country, bringing Sydney soul-punks Royal Headache with them everywhere they go.
Always an impressive live band on more intimate stages, Royal Headache’s support slot has seen negative reports appear on their Facebook and a satirical tumblr created as a result. There’s an urgency missing when compared to their normal show, and frontman Shogun isn’t quite his normally effervescent self – although he does exhort the audience to buy their merchandise with the claim that he needs the money, “…cos I took two weeks off work for this”. The clutch of new songs that they play are very strong, while the likes of 'Never Again' and 'Down the Lane' from their 2011 debut self-titled album are just wonderful soul songs cloaked in garage rock garb.
If the Black Keys were return to the Big Day Out in 2014, you would wager that it would be as one of the headline attractions – they certainly know how to put on a spectacle these days, with an impressive light show, mirror balls, and their name in flashing neon.
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Wilson are at the front of the stage and very much the focus; the backing band are kept at the back and in the dark, and on two video screens are barely sighted. It’s strange, as the bass and organ in particular are vital parts of the songs that make up Brothers and El Camino – opener 'Howling For You', the excellent 'Next Girl', and 'Gold on the Ceiling' are powered as much by the backing musicians as they are by the formative duo.
Nevertheless, it’s when the Black Keys drop down to the two-piece that they’re still at their most potent – the run of older songs from Thickfreakness, Rubber Factory and Magic Potion that find them performing in pared-back mode are a wicked reminder of how potent the band were when they used to play venues such as the Metro in Sydney, where they recorded a live DVD – there’s a sense of spontaneity and a freeform blues nature to this make-up, whereas when in full-band mode they’re more regimented rock ‘n roll.
But that’s not to say that they’re any less brilliant; 'Little Black Submarines' is the perfect bridge between the duo and the full band, and a clear highlight of the show as the transition takes place from one format of performance to the other. The Black Keys focus is firmly on cuts from their last two albums but they have an arsenal of terrific songs to draw from to make up an hour-and-a-half long set that’s expertly delivered by one of the biggest rock ‘n roll bands of current times.