It should come as no surprise that no single person could find six feet to themselves at Tuesday night’s sold-out Black Keys concert at Jannus Live. The St. Petersburg stop was one of just three dates on a “World Tour of America” announced after the Keys’ summer arena tour was canned in response to coronavirus. The gig sold out minutes after going on sale, and the roughly 2,000 people packed in to see the Akron, Ohio boys were treated to an opening barrage of their rowdiest cuts.
The Keys—buoyed by drummer Patrick Carney whose oversized kick drum was mic’d big and loud per usual—barrelled through their first four songs in less than 15 minutes before frontman-guitarist Dan Auerbach strapped on an acoustic to slow things down on the intro of “Little Black Submarines,” a song whose first half very much borrows from Zeppelin before the band plugs in for the Skynrd-esque coda.
If there's a knock on the 18-song set, it’s that Keys’ songs—in spite of Auerbach’s fiery guitar work and reverence for Delta blues—can at times feel like a Bud Light or Jeep commercial, except commercials are usually only 60-seconds long or less. Luckily, the Keys had a surprise: a meaty middle set featuring guitarist Kenny Brown and bassist Eric Deaton who joined Carney and Auerbach for six, steamy songs that were loose and and occasionally sloppy in the best way.
Brown and Deaton are both longtime members of bands fronted by blues gods R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. The Keys’ new album Delta Kream is an homage to the genre and leans on covers of both Burnside and Kimbrough. The 60-minutes the lineup spent on stage together featured songs from those icons and was anchored in reverence for Mississippi music’s deep Black roots without an air or pretense or appropriation. Auerbach’s nasally bark during “Crawling Kingsnake,” “Poor Boy Long Way From Home,” “Stay All Night” and Ranie Burnette’s “Coal Black Mattie” was pretty much impossible to decipher, which actually served the songs well.
Instead of singing along to lyrics the way it did loudly during “Howlin’ For You,” “Gold On the Ceiling” and encore-closer “Lonely Boy,” Jannus Live was left to live in Deaton’s amorphous slide lines and loose rhythm laid down by Carney and Deaton. That meant some folks heading for the restroom, but those who stuck around were treated to an hour of roadhouse rock that you might hear pumping out of a ‘70s Oldsmobile Cutlass (the same car that’s in the William Eggleston “Delta Kream” photo on the Keys’ new album). It felt like a bar in that open-air venue; and even through a KN95, you could catch a whiff of joints being passed around.
Most striking, and concerning, about being at this concert with 2,000 people in the hours after another atypical Florida summer storm was how normal—and good—it felt. The Keys’ loose playing, and the laid back energy of the crowd called for another $6 beer, or three. It called for sharing spliffs and putting your arms around the stranger next to you. It felt good to share space, but coming off some of the deadliest months of Florida’s approach to coronavirus, standing two feet apart—shoulder-to-shoulder in a space where only about 5% in attendance were masked—felt dangerous. And as new state leaders double down on their “no more fear” mandates while hospital workers buckle under the pressure of battling the pandemic, going to sold-out concerts is still a gamble. But the allure of the crawling kingsnake (nonvenomous, by the way) is hard to resist sometimes, and about 2,000 entered the snake’s den on Tuesday—just consider yourself lucky if you escaped its bite.
I Got Mine
Howlin’ For You
Gold On the Ceiling
Little Black Submarines
Crawling Kingsnake (Big Joe Williams / John Lee Hooker)
Poor Boy A Long Way From Home (Bukka White / Howlin’ Wolf)
Stay All Night (Junior Kimbrough)
Coal Black Mattie (Ranie Burnette)
Going Down South
Do the Rump
Have Love Will Travel
She’s Long Gone
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