It's easy for concert films to become monstrous, overblown pieces of ego feeding crap (Rattle and Hum, The Song Remains The Same. I'm talking to you.) The best films are the one that showcase the band and their music, instead of relying on stupid effects, dramatic camera angles or skits where they play gangsters.
With The Black Keys Live at The Crystal Ballroom director Lance Bangs does what every good director should do from time to time: Leave the subject alone and let them work. Dan Auerbach (vocals/guitar) played his travel worn Gretsch like a man possessed and in long hair and full beard combo, he looked like Grizzly Adams with a blues fetish. Pat Carney is the geek of power drums; tall and gawky as a scientist trading his microscope for a drum throne. These two are an unlikely one-two punch that can crack open your skull, rip out the pleasure center of your brain and leave you wanting more. However, not all is perfect in the Ballroom.
Filmed during a show at The Crystal Ballroom in Portland, OR, the set leans a bit heavy on their latest album Attack & Release, that's to be expected and is unfortunate. Yes, Attack was produced by Dangermouse and yes, it gave the Keys a ton more exposure to the world at large but these factors do not make Attack & Release the duo's best album; on the contrary, it is probably their worst on many levels but I am not here to review the album; I am here to critique the fabulous Live at The Crystal Ballroom.
Lance Bangs, director of several videos and R.E.M.'s Road Movie, was enlisted to director the Ballroom DVD but, while watching the concert for the second and third time, it crept into my mind that, with a band as great and as comfortable on stage as The Black Keys seem to be, a director is unnecessary. Just set up a few cameras with operators, run the band's regular lighting set up, make sure to get some shots of the audience high-fivin' and going nuts. Voila!, there you have it, a great concert DVD that diehards will love and new fans will watch then bust down the door to buy concert tickets.
The show, filmed on April 4, 2008, is a good and true representation of The Black Keys in concert. Dan Auerbach sings like there's Delta Mud in his soul and Patrick Carney is one of the most aggressively nuanced drummers in the game. Gems from all of the bands five albums are used here; the songs that benefit most from a live run through are the ones from Attack; where they are produced to death by the hand of Dangermouse, live the band takes them back to their roots: stripping away all the layers leaving only drums, guitar, vocals and as is the case of "Oceans and Streams", a Hammond B-3 organ. If the band would have recorded the songs this way on Attack, they would have had one of the best albums of their career instead of one that barely passes for decent.
The songs that blow the roof of the building are the clearly Jimi Hendrix inspired "Thickfreakness", the down and out "Busted", the old blues tale of regret "Stack Shot Billy" and the self explanatory "I Got Mine". These tunes show the partners knowledge, their prowess and the lengths they will go to give their fans what they want. Watching Live at The Crystal Ballroom reaffirms to me that, though they may never achieve the same level of notoriety as another blues rock revivalist duo The White Stripes, The Black Keys are better live and are very possibly the best live band on the road today.
Live has extras that include behind the scenes footage of the boys recording Attack at Suma Studios on the outskirts' of Cleveland and three music videos. But the real extras are the seventeen songs that The Black Keys burn through like fire engulfing a paper mill; they are relentless, they're blistering, they're damned near perfect, they are two white boys from Akron with the blues. They are the motherfuckin' Black Keys!