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THE BLACK KEYS/BAND OF SKULLS @ APOLLO, MANCHESTER – REVIEW BY NIGEL CARTNER

 
I’m actually ashamed to say that for several years ‘The Black Keys’ eluded my reach in searching for new and exciting music that is reminiscent of the ‘good ol’ days’, so to speak. Having only heard of them from the song, ‘Set You Free’ on the ‘School of Rock’ soundtrack, I presumed that they were a band that peaked somewhere in the 1970s, a sort of progression from bands such as ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd’, encapsulating that southern American blues/rock genre. As the years drifted by, the name was mentioned to me every now and then by a few friends who held them in the highest regard and recommendation. I’d always forget to live up to the promise I made myself to give them a thorough listening to, so when I got the call a couple of days before their Apollo appearance, I didn’t think twice about going along to witness first hand and live what the stigma was about. Before I could do that though, there was the small matter of observing the support act, ‘Band of Skulls’ and if I was excited about seeing ‘The Black Keys’, then ‘Band of Skulls’ elevated that emotion further with a sublime performance.
 

There was huge anticipation surrounding The Apollo about this band that hailed from Southampton, how could there not be if they had the honour of supporting ‘The Black Keys’. The three members, Russell Marsden on guitar and vocals, Emma Richardson on bass and vocals and Matthew Hayward on drums took to the stage and launched into their intrinsically sharp and loud, but precise guitar based rock, where sometimes it only took two sharp notes to be strummed to create an atmosphere, so simple yet so effective. The tempo was slow but heavy, with guitar work that echoed and melted the walls around us, even with the bitter Manchester coldness ruling the outdoors. The tunes had a slight darkness to them, but there was no need for aggression in their playing to get their point across, the vast talent and blend of their musicianship and structured melodies was enough to take the audiences breath away. Richardson and Marsden alternate the vocals, and by being different genders, that kept an unpredictable, unfamiliarity about their nature, leaving the crowd wanting more. Hayward’s drumming was loud, beaten violently in keeping to the guitars ear-splitting, rich sound. Their final song was a ‘more aggressive’ number as Marsden remarks, and the mood snapped into an adrenaline, blood pumping rage of high tempo rock, showing that they have a lot in their arsenal for the future if they chose to experiment in different sounds.

‘Band of Skulls’ are very much a band on the way up, and the stature of this show is evident of that, as well as supporting other big name acts such as ‘Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’ and ‘Muse’ in the past couple of years. They released their debut album in 2008, titled, ‘Baby Darling Doll Face Honey’, followed by an EP in 2010 titled ‘Friends’. Some of their songs have already hit the commercial stage by being featured in the ‘Twilight Saga: New Moon’ soundtrack. The new album is due for release on 20th February 2012, titled, ‘Sweet Sour’ and the first single, ‘The Devil Takes Care of His Own’ was already released in October 2011. ‘Band of Skulls’ have sold out venues before, but I don’t think it’ll be long before they’ll be headlining a barrage of sell out shows throughout the UK’s most prestigious and famous venues.

 

 
So, having been suitably pumped up for the main event by the support act, I was now ready for this band from Akron, Ohio to affect me similar and beyond, and I was not to be disappointed, about to be been blown away outside of my reckoning.
 

THE BLACK KEYS: THE KEY IS IN THE BLUES

Opening with the immensely popular ‘Howlin’ For You’, I was immediately hooked, unwilling to take my eyes off them for a second. Their heavy, bluesy rock sound is just the sort of band that strikes an exciting chord in, one I’d craved for years from someone new. Within seconds, my foot was tapping, my head bobbed and my lips inexplicably puckered as I was propelled uncontrollably into the realms of an unbelievable onslaught of bluesy rock music, the sort that soundtracks a heavy all day drinking session in some back street blues bar. The audience were equally overwhelmed with a mixture of ages gracing the floor, showing their appeal to all backgrounds and both genders. The crowd danced, cheered and flailed their hands up and down effervescently as the band teared through a selection of old classics and new hits off their latest album, ‘El Camino’, meaning ‘The Way’ that has brought so much attention. Guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach is a picture of coolness with weighty stubble, a rough unkempt haircut and a black leather jacket that signifies the bands approach, rough and ready. His guitar work is simply phenomenal, one that rips through the heart and shreds through the soul. A variety of cool, cut loose and ‘in yer face’ riffs form the core of every song that never lets up once for respite, or becomes mundane, all captivating of the highest quality. Drummer Patrick Carney perches on his stool at the front of the stage, his drum kit turned to the side so the audience can directly scrutinise the impact he has. The spectacles that he wore on entrance now come off and transform him into a fully intensified and passionate beating machine that supports Auerbach’s creative direction as they take us on this trip through rebel like, jaw dropping, rock n roll.

It’s been a hard fought journey for ‘The Black Keys’ since their arrival ten years ago, never really finding that opportunity to thrust solely into the limelight, but they see that as a positive as Auerbach states, “It has taken us longer to be successful but I feel better about where we are as human beings.” With much more media spotlight now focussed on them, coupled with being  the winners of and nominated for various Grammys in 2011, venues have become instant sell outs on this recent tour, and their latest seventh album, ‘El Camino’ went gold in the UK last week having only been released in December. It took eighteen months for a similar feat to occur with previous LP, ‘Brothers’. Maybe it’s because of the problems surrounding ‘Kings of Leon’ or the split seen from ‘The White Stripes’ that acknowledgement has now come their way. It’s possible that from a media point of view that these two bands clouded their progression, but the world is now starting to take notice, and rightfully so. Make no mistake about it, this is a band that should’ve been an instant hit on a worldwide scale and it’s unbeknown to me why they weren’t sooner. From this show alone, it has already influenced me in purchasing four of their albums. With the success and sell out shows of huge venues/stadiums seen by fellow Americans ‘Kings of Leon’ and ‘The White Stripes’, the opportunity is now there for ‘The Black Keys’ to launch themselves to a similar global status, especially with more albums in the pipeline.

Photos by Melanie Smith [only had a pass for Band Of Skulls]