Few rock bands these days have been so successful at reviving a musical style that is older than the genre itself. Before Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis made rock and roll what it is today, there was a period of musical history in the delta south taking place that is the foundation for everything in music that we love today. I would drop some names of just who was influenced by this, but the list is endless and all you have to do is tune in to your classic rock station and there you have it.
The “blues” and, more importantly, those who attended the school of Robert Johnson (everyone) are well known. B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Hendrix, and yes, Jack White, all owe their careers to Mr. Johnson, and have given credit where credit is due. I would like to take this time to add another contemporary in the post-millennium musical world to this list, The Black Keys.
From the perspective of blues historian and musician Curtis Blues, The Black Keys are a revival of that pre-war delta sound for a new generation. This is evident if you have ever listened to any one of their records, including the most recent Attack and Release. Before the Danger Mouse touch however, the band was making garage style blues rock that was gritty, heavy and real, trying to gain success on their own with recording help from independent studios. It’s their first record that caught my ear as being something special. A record that takes the listener back to the crossroads where the Devil and Robert Johnson met.
The Akron, Ohio duo of Dan Auerbach (vocals and guitar) and Patrick Carney (drums and production) has been making music together for some time now. It took a little while, and some help from a certain well known producer to gain their much deserved notoriety from the public, but until recently they have been more of a well kept secret in the music community. Released in 2002, their debut, The Big Come Up, was brought to life by the independent label Alive Records from Carney’s steamy mid-west basement. Carney used his patented technique he likes to call medium fidelity to capture the muggy atmosphere perfectly amongst the distorted guitars and surprisingly simple drum rhythms. He describes this process on the back of the record as such, “the system that requires equal parts broke-ass shit to equal parts hot-ass shit”. The result is a record full of ruckus, and sloppy blues-rock that is modern, but sounds like it could have been recorded 30 years ago.
The Big Come Up is filled with incredible originals that shows us first hand the soul-enriched voice and blues mastery of Auerbach, as well as the beginning of the progression that is Carney’s drumming skills. On this record, Carney remains surprisingly simple, putting the focus mostly on Auerbach. It’s not until several records later that we begin to see the full abilities of Carney shine through as much more than a timekeeper and producer. “Them Eyes” is the first time you hear Carney break out of his shell on this album. With added cymbal work he turns it up to bring us closer to The Black Keys we know today.
Introducing the debut is the song “Busted”, which plays like a classic Keys song that could have very well been on Rubber Facotry or Magic Potion. The slide guitars, with almost punk rock drums, dare you to not bang your head with a sudden craving for a cigarette. What follows is the simple old time blues formula with the distinctly Black Keys essence that is hard to find today. On “Countdown”, Auerbach decides to ditch the low distorted tones for a much more upbeat and classic sounding arrangement that transplants you back to the early days of blues when Elvis was still in diapers. The last track on the record, “240 Years Before Your Time”, closes out the record with pre-recorded voices, much like on the earlier track “The Breaks” which opens more like a hip-hop song than rock. A strong Jimmy Hendrix influence makes the song sound like a long psychedelic introduction to a lost Hendrix track that fades into nothing.
The Big Come Up also features three surprising covers from The Stooges, The Beatles, and one of their influences, Junior Kimbrough with “Do The Rump”. Unfortunately you can only find their rendition of The Stooges “No Fun” on the vinyl edition (a great clear printed record, perfect for that collector in your life). Each one of the covers takes the selected songs and shows the listener just how connected each of these artists are no matter what style they chose to play. It all comes full circle, back to those lonely crossroads in the south. “She Said She Said”, originally written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, serves again as a history lesson, showing exactly where The Beatles drew from for influence. It takes the song from its polished beginning and washes it through the delta mud turning out what could be mistaken for a uniquely Keys song.
It’s an amazing thing to watch our favorite bands grow from their humble roots. What is even more impressive is that with The Black Keys, the growing pains have been minimal, staying close to where they started six years ago. Even with the production aid of Danger Mouse, the songs on Attack and Release still have the strong memories of The Big Come Up within it. The talent of the duo is unmatched, and grows with every record as they leave the Mississippi delta and move farther north, exploring other avenues of their creativity. The Big Come Up is the humble beginning of two guys trying to rock way before Aurbach had all that hair.