Two days before headlining Forecastle, one of the summer's biggest music festivals, Akron, Ohio, duo The Black Keys will stop in Raleigh to do what very few young rock bands have done in the last decade: They'll headline the Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek.
The cumbersomely named but proportionately massive amphitheater sits a few miles southeast of downtown Raleigh and holds just less than 21,000 people. It mostly hosts legacy acts riding cash-in tours or country stars soundtracking the summer. But The Black Keys seem to share something aside from tour routes and fame with the young country megastars who will headline places like Walnut Creek this summer; they take the essence of a familiar, almost instinctual form of American music and rebrand it with a modern glow.
If you're being generous and playing loose with genres, only two other young rock acts, John Mayer and Maroon 5, are scheduled to take top billing in the area's biggest shed this year. But both of those acts are more aptly labeled adult contemporary or pop than rock, especially compared to the distortion-driven, two-dudes-in-a-room primitivism of guitarist-singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney.
This isn't a localized phenomenon for The Black Keys. In an era when radio hits key on ubiquitous Auto-Tune, pristine studio production and bombastic electronics, The Black Keys have risen to international fame with blues-based blasts about insufferable girlfriends and inconvenient love, inescapable heartache and inevitable penance. Their last two LPs have both gone platinum stateside and climbed high on The Billboard 200 without hitting No. 1. Last December, they sold out two consecutive nights in London's O2 Arena; on the lineup for last fall's Austin City Limits Festival, promoters listed them third, just behind the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Neil Young & Crazy Horse.
The Black Keys aren't the only blues-rooted rock band writing good songs right now or in the past 15 years, really. But they're the only ones to reach these sustained levels of acclaim and affluence. Potential reasons for The Black Keys' success abound, and many factors seem to function symbiotically. They've written memorable songs since their debut LP a decade ago, and they've worked tirelessly not only to tour those tunes but to make them better by force of practice and volume of output. In 11 years, they've released seven albums, two EPs and a collaborative hip-hop record, all the while issuing solo projects and producing albums by several upstarts. They've pushed their best songs into commercials, video games and movies, and they've slowly expanded their stylistic range as they've grown their audience.
Indeed, their comfort zone has metastasized far beyond the garage-blues of their earliest output. For their last two records, 2010's Brothers and 2011's El Camino, The Black Keys have netted Grammys and launched radio hits by adding soul choirs, psychedelic guitar, R&B stomp and a little implicit hip-hop swagger. Just as Kenny Chesney doesn't make the sort of country that your Roy Acuff-loving grandfather would like, The Black Keys don't necessarily make blues music for those who care about Chicago's Maxwell Street or how many fingers Hound Dog Taylor had. "Next Girl," their 2010 anthem, echoed the blues' mantra of dismissing a lowdown-and-dirty partner, but the song is bejeweled like a T. Rex curio, with webs of echo and texture wrapped around the hook. It is more the impression of blues music than proper blues music—a spirit, but not its source.
The Black Keys capitalize, then, on the powerful suggestion of the past. Their update on comfortable forms is so aggressive that the result feels less like nostalgia and simply like the next generation. It's a trick that, turns out, sells a lot of tickets.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Your blues."