The Black Keys & St. Vincent
Photo by David Klein
Saintly and spooky: St. Vincent's Annie Clark
PNC Arena, Raleigh
Friday, Dec. 5, 2014
A bill that pairs the stylized, experimental approach of St. Vincent with the crowd-pleasing retro rock of the Black Keys seems an odd one indeed, kind of like David Bowie opening up for Humble Pie.
If there’s a point of agreement between the two, besides both acts receiving Grammy nominations last week, it comes down to an abiding love of the electric guitar played at satisfying volume. Yet the Keys’ adherence to traditional styles is the polar opposite of Clark, who seems to have all but dispensed with the blues. How these two deploy rock’s essential piece of equipment falls into clear divisions between old school and new.
New school came first: With her backlit corona of white hair, Clark is a striking visual presence. Her guitar noise, which can call to mind the sound of a spaceship being sawn in half, is just as singular. You can’t really imagine that anyone else could dream up these songs, much less sing and play them. From her titles (“Birth in Reverse,” “Severed Crossed Fingers”) to her hypnotic stage moves, like the one where she resembles a guitar-playing robot on wheels being drawn slowly backward by an invisible string, Clark beguiles and upends conventions.
Abetted by a drummer and two keyboard players, the Dallas-born, Brooklyn-based polymath was every bit the singular performer she was at Hopscotch in September. And with its heavy theatrical edge and choreography, the show looked much better in the dark. But there was another crucial difference: In September, in front of a smaller crowd at a more intimate day-lit setting, she spoke, occasionally cryptically, to the crowd. This time, in the dark confines of PNC, set at a safe distance from the crowd, she didn’t need to engage with the gathered throng. Not that you’d expect her to come out with a “Hello, Raleigh,” but the introduction of the band by a Stephen Hawking-type voice only emphasized the distance between audience and performer. Those gathered in the general-admission floor section responded warmly enough to her performance, while the folks in the upper reaches seemed slightly mystified.
The Black Keys, on the other hand, don’t want to upend conventions; they want you to boogie. They sing about cars and girls, breakups and new love. From humble origins, this Akron, Ohio, duo, now touring as a four-piece, has worked up to playing stadiums through old-school fan-base building. They play an intense mix of heartland rock, garage psych and damaged blues, and they’ve honed their already concise songs to their short, sharp essence. They wrench everything out of a few chords, drummer Patrick Carney’s propulsive backbeat, and Dan Auerbach’s bluesy rasp. The music is satisfying on a primal level—it’s Camaro rock, kind of the opposite of St. Vincent’s head music, and it’s infectious.
But it wasn’t just a sea of flannels and hoodies, ball caps and beards. There were plenty of kids too, many in the single digits. To them, the fact that one song sounded like Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” fused with a “na-na-na” chorus cribbed from Gary Glitter surely didn’t matter. This was meat-and-potatoes rock retooled for a new generation, played with undeniable passion and presented with road-tested savvy. One imagined a fair number of kids were attending their first rock concert, and a rock concert is what the Black Keys gave them, replete with sing-alongs, lighters held aloft, and the deployment of time tested audience-involvement techniques such as, “Help us out on this one if you can."
When it was done, the audience filed out to the strains of Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On.” Score another victory for classic rock: 30 years after its ’70s heyday, even an updated version of it still fills big rooms and brings in fresh recruits.