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Long Live the Riff: The Black Keys at Constitution Hall

The riff isn’t dead. It just bides its time, popping up only when we really, really need it. And lately, among a cavalcade of post-punk, new wave redux and Brooklyn nerd rock, we really need it.

Which might explain the response the Black Keys got Monday night at a sold-out Constitution Hall. This band is riding a huge wave (their current disc, Brothers, entered the chart at No. 3) and are cutting across tastes and demographics like few contemporary bands I’ve seen. In the crowd: punks, hippies, metalheads and frat-boy bros, all there to hear the Keys’ blend of Mountain-esque swamp rock fused with the garage sensibilities of the MC5 (the latter being even more fitting, in that Constitution Hall is basically a glorified garage). In short, to pay homage to real rock. Not hyphenated rock, not pop, but in-your-face, fuzztoned power chords.

Their music has the unique distinction of fitting nearly every mood–it’s equally at home as late-night background music if you’re stoned on the couch, or at monster volumes when you’ve had four cups of coffee. Of course, Monday brought the latter, a ridiculously high-energy , nearly two-hour set (which is saying something when most songs fall between three and four minutes). Patrick Carney thrashed his kit, utilizing his crash as a ride, and often relying on a second floor tom to the left of his snare in lieu of the hi-hat. Dan Auerbach blasted out riff after satisfying riff while his voice alternated between growl and falsetto.

The middle of the set saw them, for the first time, augment their two-man attack with a bass player and a keyboard player, the better to faithfully recreate the material on Brothers, with its Curtis Mayfield, funk-soul overtones. And here was my one gripe: with a four-piece band, I wished they had let a few of the songs breathe a bit more and jam them out. But it’s a small criticism over one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.

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