Considering that the outer harbor is basically “Buffalo’s front yard,” it was a poignant moment Monday night during the Black Keys’ brilliant performance before more than 9,000 boisterous fans when frontman Dan Auerbach declared, “It’s like a mini-Lollapalooza out here – this is all right!”
Equating the similarity of that scene to the annual festival in Chicago’s Grant Park and the applause that followed it should echo in the ears of the prospective stewards of this essential, yet slighted swath of land along Lake Erie. Consider it a call to grant us our own Grant Park.
For now on the outer harbor, we’ve been granted a few promising aesthetic improvements and six prominent concerts put on by Funtime After Dark. The promoters made proper adjustments for its third installment by adding a few food trucks to what had been a too-thin offering of keep-it-simple amenities for the masses, plus more portable potties. Most importantly, they once again brought the boom in stage and sound for the Akron, Ohio, duo that has developed a stadium-sized sound from the Delta blues base that remains its foundation.
The commitment to that base was made clear from the opening cut of its nearly 90-minute set, as the duo of Auerbach on guitar/vocals and drummer Patrick Carney along with touring mates Gus Seyffert (bass/guitar) and John Wood (keys/guitar) hit hard with “Howlin’ for You,” doing away with Danger Mouse’s studio effects of digital percussion and hand claps. Fortunately, Auerbach is well-capable of commanding the blues, wrapping his rugged tenor around big bends and body-shaking shouts.
Another track from its sixth and major breakout 2010 album, “Brothers,” followed in “Next Girl,” a hopeful post-breakup blues for the ages. That was followed by the hapless “Run Right Back” from the 2011 platinum-selling and Grammy-winning album “El Camino.” For that song, Seyffert switched to a 1959 Danelectro double-neck bass, with which he owned the low end while sliding up to the six-string to strum chords during Auerbach’s searing breakdown when he truly cut loose on lead guitar on “Same Old Thing,” from 2008’s “Attack & Release.”
Like their gear, the soul of the Black Keys’ sound is still old despite the obviously effective modern polish added in recent years. “Dead and Gone” displayed Carney’s constantly pulsating beat, still raw but polished into a pop-worthy chorus complete with a “na-na-na” refrain. Carney seemed sloppy on purpose in the recent hit “Gold on the Ceiling,” another refreshingly raw take on a track heavy on pop-appealing studio production.
Auerbach and Carney served a few duo songs that brought out their muddier-than-the-Mississippi tones, highlighted by the tight tension and riff-heavy release of “Girl Is On My Mind.” Auerbach thumbed the bass line while plucking out dirty melodies in a pure and powerful display of the sonic might the duo can bring to such a large stage. Even when Auerbach dropped to a knee to slowly bring the song to a close, it felt right at home before the captivated crowd.
Seyffert and Wood returned to drive home the depth of songs such as “Money Maker” and “Strange Times,” which has always been in the Keys’ sound and has matured immensely over the years while still being driven by dirty blues riffs and soul hooks. Seyffert stayed at home on bass as Auerbach brought the big soul out of the funky pseudo-breakbeat that breaks wide open in their biggest hit, “Tighten Up,” before “Lonely Boy” closed the set with the glory of a riff-rock sing-along.
The evening opened with Welsh power trio the Joy Formidable tearing through a 30-minute set that took the shoe-gazing approach of strumming lush, upper-register riffs and blending it with more engaging hooks and absolute ownership of the stage. Guitarist-vocalist Ritzy Bryan and bassist Rhydian Dafydd stomped around throughout, stopping only to sing and occasionally smash the cymbals of already pounding drummer Matthew James Thomas.
Sure, the evening closed with a line of traffic – except for those who rode in via the water, as the Queen City Ferry and more than a few kayakers easily exited, a welcome sight on a night full of emerging entities on the outer harbor.