If you didn’t know that The Black Keys lived in Nashville, you wouldn’t have known it by the end of the band’s sold-out Bridgestone Arena gig Friday night. While The Spin wasn’t expecting much in the way of guest appearances or set-list shakeups from the duo, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney certainly know how emotionally needy Nashvillians are, and in the banter department, wouldn't they say something to acknowledge the brief but storied history they’ve cultivated since moving to Music City two-and-a-half years ago?
Sure, Auerbach uttered his share of “Thank you, Nashvilles!” But they were probably in the same spots and in same manner that he thanked St. Louis in St. Louis, Cleveland in Cleveland and New York in East Rutherford. Likewise, the duo (augmented onstage to four-piece status with an auxiliary bassist and keyboardist) stuck to the script, turning in essentially the same set they’ve trotted out from arena to arena (and the occasional shed or festival) for the last (literally) 120 shows. Granted, those were the 120 cities they played before hitting Nashville.
Luckily for us, Nashville was only the fourth and one of the few cities to land The Flaming Lips as an opener. You might think the Lips' whimsical, tried-and-true, adult-birthday-party pastiche of balloons, confetti cannons and crowd-surfing in space bubbles would prove a tough act to follow for the Keys. Well, luckily for them, Wayne Coyne & Co. have entered their KISS-sans-makeup period and retired that show. Opting instead for cerebral over celebratory, the Lips recently entered a new fearless, freaky era, crafting a heady new stage show to compliment their darkly psychedelic new record, The Terror, which comprised nearly half of the band’s 11-song set.
A tangle of plastic light-up tubes streamed like vines from the trusses overhead, across the disco-ball-littered stage and up into the belly of the prosthetic baby that Coyne cradled as he stood atop a glittering platform, which he never strayed from. Garbed in a form-hugging silver suit and looking like a middle-aging space-aged dandy, Coyne followed in (of all frontmen) Bono’s footsteps, scanning the crowd in the darkened bowl with a handheld searchlight.
Although Coyne never went as far as commanding cohorts Steven Drozd or Michael Ivins to “play the blues,” the bass on speaker-peakers like “The Terror” and Technicolor-funk staple “The W.A.N.D.” rattled the seats, while Coyne’s high-pitched croon rang clear is a bell through the cavernous space during a sans-drums, mellow take on the now-classic life-affirming Lips signature “Do You Realize?”
That wasn’t the only art-rock anthem in the Lips' set. The band also kicked out a fittingly faithful cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” which more than half of the audience seemed totally unfamiliar with. Sigh.
Getting back to The Black Keys, while it was another Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney for the band, at least that meant they were well-oiled. Like Bill Murray committing Andie McDowell's taste for sweet vermouth to memory, saving the falling kid from the tree and clean-sweeping Jeopardy, armchair-style, the band, backlit and silhouetted by the towering screens behind them, strolled onto stage with all the confidence of James Dean sauntering through Times Square and immediately brought the crowd to their feet with an opening slew of Brothers and El Camino favorites like “Next Girl” and a festive “Gold on the Ceiling.”
Without a doubt, 15 months of playing 10,000-plus-strong crowds has made Auerbach a formidable arena-rock frontman and at times a bona-fide arena rock god. The singer knew exactly when to cue the handclaps with a single gesture, hop to the lip of the stage for one of many face-melting guitar solos, jump back from his amp as if it emitted 100-mile-per-hour winds and wrestle with his ax like Grover Norquist trying to drown government in a bath tub.
Meanwhile, drummer Patrick Carney further proved his place as the most perfect, stiffly plodding skin-beater in contemporary rock, and a perfect fit to drive Auerbach’s engine. It was also nice to see the gossip-column-worthy drummer take a 90-minute break from haranguing spell-check-challenged Beliebers on Twitter.
Midway through the main set, Carney and Auerbach gave their sidemen a smoke break and, for old time’s sake, got back to their roots-copying roots, performing “Thickfreakness,” “Girl Is on My Mind” and “Your Touch” — three of only six pre-Brothers set-list selections — as a two-piece. Ghettoizing the (relatively speaking) old-school jams made their performances feel a little obligatory and perfunctory. Especially seeing as how either “Thickfreakness” or “Your Touch” would’ve made for a hands-down more electrifying opening number than tepid-by-comparison blues shuffle “Howlin’ for You,” which kicked off the show.
The first song to follow the nostalgic mini-set was the very “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”-esque El Camino soft-release single “Little Black Submarines,” and to our surprise (kind of), it inspired the most “Stairway to Heaven”-like sing-along of the night. That led into a back-half homestretch bolstered by an urgently anthemic “Nova Baby,” a charging, arena-scuzz run through “Strange Times” and a predictably crowd-pleasing, predictably set-closing one-two punch of “Tighten Up” and “Lonely Boy.”
The show’s highlight, however, didn’t come until the two-song encore of the simply fantastic “Everlasting Light” — during which, via a pair of large, multi-colored mirror balls, the lighting designer used the audience as canvas, lighting them up in what looked like a bright bath of moving frozen yogurt sprinkles — and their ever-thoroughly-rocking standard closer “I Got Mine.” They played as a two-piece, just like they did at Grimey's that one time.
Overall, a solid B+.