Live Review: Rock Nostalgia Reigns As Black Keys, Modest Mouse Take Barclays

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– Let’s (Arena) Rock
The Black Keys perform at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Oct. 15.

The Black Keys / Modest Mouse
Barclays Center
Brooklyn, N.Y.
October 15, 2019

The Black Keys played to a packed-to-the-gills Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Tuesday, but Dan Auerbach kept talking about the basement in Akron, Ohio, where the band got its start.

Auerbach and Keys cohort Patrick Carney have dealt in nostalgia for their nearly two decades as a band, of course, from the grimy Plymouth Grand Voyager on the cover of their Grammy-winning 2011 album El Camino to the very brand of soul-inflected blues-rock that made them one of the few rock acts to ascend to arenas this decade.

But now, as Auerbach alluded, they’re dealing in a different kind of nostalgia: for themselves. It’s a logical next step for the band that nodded tongue-in-cheek at meta-stardom by opting against traditional artwork for 2010’s commercial breakout Brothers, instead filling the cover with unadorned text reading, “This is an album by the Black Keys. The name of this album is Brothers.”

The Keys, though, have now been festival and arena headliners for about as long as they weren’t, when they were slugging it out on the club and theater circuit as the groovy indie-rock band your friend who was on the right message boards turned you on to. And while Auerbach repeatedly referenced the Akron basement where he and Carney honed their chops, and repeatedly introduced the band as himself and his drumming counterpart, other visual indicators were unavoidable: the ascending and descending light fixtures, the elaborate screen serving as backdrop, the backing musicians – three on Tuesday – who’ve added extra oomph to Keys shows the entire decade.

Myth-making – or, at least, indulging – has been a rock ‘n’ roll trope for as long as the genre’s existed; even Paul McCartney still invokes humble roots at his shows, when he waxes poetic about playing the British pub circuit several decades ago. To an extent, that’s the allure of a Keys show: two dudes, playing honest-to-goodness rock music for an arena, at a time when that’s increasingly rare. The Keys might’ve endured some gentle, deserved ribbing when they renamed their 2019 comeback LP “Let’s Rock,” but they’ve always been ones for honest marketing.

Before Tuesday, Auerbach and Carney hadn’t played New York City since a June 2015 headlining slot at Governors Ball, and a two-night Barclays stand several months earlier in September 2014. At Barclays, they delivered a polished – based on the rote reading of “Howlin’ For You,” a bit too polished, at times – and hit-laden 90-minute set, with just enough Auerbach guitar spelunking to keep things interesting. They’ve amassed a formidable catalog that flits from swampy blues to heady psych-rock to glistening, Chess-indebted R&B, and it’s thrilling to watch them unleash gem after gem, like a jukebox dispensing musical manna for audiences who have, maybe, expressed skepticism about the whole making-songs-on-a-computer thing.

Counterintuitively, Auerbach’s nods to the basement were the least compelling moments of the show. The Keys played a song apiece off their second, third and fourth albums – fans of raw 2002 debut The Big Come Up went home empty-handed – and, while “Thickfreakness,” “10 A.M. Automatic,” and “Your Touch” all received fine readings, they inherently lose some edge when played by a five-piece at Barclays Center, as opposed to a duo in a Rust Belt basement.

It’s the band’s soulful, melodic ’10s output that Auerbach revels in, and those are the songs that gleamed Tuesday. The setlist’s highlights largely came from Brothers and “Let’s Rock,” which together comprised more than half the night’s programming. Live, the new tracks fit right in, and scan as mellower kindred spirits to Brothers‘ similarly immaculate, but heavier tunes. In either canny sequencing or humorous coincidence, the Keys played “Let’s Rock” standouts “Fire Walk With Me” and “Walk Across the Water” back-to-back, indulging the former’s sizzling rock before dipping into the latter’s propulsive balladry.

Steven Ferdman / Getty Images
– Good News For People Who Love Modest Mouse
Isaac Brock leads a fiery Modest Mouse set before The Black Keys’ headlining performance at Barclays Center on Oct. 15.

The Keys put “Let’s Rock” in quotes, because the title references the last ones spoken by Tennessee death-row inmate Edmund Zagorski before his execution by electric chair last year, and the band deployed some gauche, Stones-like showmanship for the encore, inflating a giant electric chair – a nod to the album’s cover – for new songs “Lo/Hi” and “Go.”

But Brothers continues to form the backbone of both the band’s legacy and live act. Effervescent “Everlasting Light” levitated with newfound brightness Tuesday, and “Ten Cent Pistol,” slotted as the penultimate tune in the main set, positively riveted, with Auerbach’s simmering guitar work leading the way as the band quieted to a whisper then roared back.

With its slick showmanship and tuneful thrust, the set was a marked contrast from Modest Mouse, who – after a brief set by Auerbach-produced Jessy Wilson – opened the show with an hour-long set that offered another kind of nostalgia, this one absent mythos. The notoriously mercurial live act went whole hog on early, obtuse material, with frontman Isaac Brock offering barely a word to a somewhat perplexed crowd as he served up jagged, discordant tunes like “Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes,” off 2000’s acclaimed The Moon & Antarctica. The band’s Issaquah, Wash., origin loomed large, even if unspoken.

Modest Mouse eschewed two of its biggest hits, 2004’s “Ocean Breathes Salty” and 2007’s “Dashboard,” instead leaning on esoteric ’90s cuts like “Broke” and “Grey Ice Water.” Ironically, some of that material sounds better in an arena in 2019 than the fare off the band’s 2004 major label debut Good News For People Who Love Bad News, which foregrounded a sepia-toned, banjo-meets-horns aesthetic that’s aged unevenly. Still, when Modest Mouse played Good News‘ “Float On,” easily their biggest hit, halfway through the set, a largely disengaged audience came to life.

It’s wasn’t that Modest Mouse was uninteresting. Quite the opposite: Brock’s uncompromising, and tempestuous readings of relative deep cuts like 2007’s seething “Spitting Venom” captivated. At times, they even felt more urgent than the polished offering the Black Keys eventually brought to the stage.

But there’s a reason why The Black Keys, even after five years away, are still headlining festivals and arenas, and Modest Mouse isn’t. If the Keys were whiskey, going down easy at an upbeat honky-tonk, Modest Mouse was devilish moonshine concocted in the Pacific Northwest backwoods. Both have their appeal, but only one is attracting thousands of New Yorkers on a Tuesday night.

The Black Keys setlist:
I Got Mine
Eagle Birds
Tell Me Lies
Gold On The Ceiling
Next Girl
Fire Walk With Me
Walk Across The Water
Everlasting Light
Howlin’ For You
10 A.M. Automatic
Your Touch
Strange Times
Tighten Up
Ten Cent Pistol
Little Black Submarines
Lonely Boy
She’s Long Gone
Modest Mouse setlist:
3rd Planet
Tiny Cities Made of Ashes
Black Cadillacs
Styrofoam Boots
Satellite Skin
Lampshades On Fire
The Devil’s Workday
Satin In A Coffin
Float On
Doin’ The Cockroach
Sugar Boats
Spitting Venom
Grey Ice Water
Poison The Well