It was a hot, wet night at Ruoff Music Center. About the only thing capable of cutting through the thick air was a piercing slide guitar solo, then another set to a steady, thumping beat.
The disgusting weather fit beautifully into The Black Keys’ plan to bring the Mississippi Delta to central Indiana on Saturday evening.
A strong arena rock show bookended this brief trip down south, but the set of covers from the group’s 2021 album “Delta Kream” was the evening’s true gem. The Keys settled into the twangy blues of Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, with help from Kimbrough’s bassist, Eric Deaton, and Burnside’s guitarist, Kenny Brown.
Brown and Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach plucked and slid their way through some downright filthy guitar solos as Patrick Carney kept the beat. During an astounding version of Burnside’s “Going Down South,” the band and its visiting musicians were cloaked in a red light as Auerbach sang the only kind of blues there is, to paraphrase Son House: The kind that exists between a man and a woman in love.
As the set closed and the Keys’ regular backing band returned, Auerbach joked we would now be “back in the Midwestern basement.”
This is my favorite kind of Black Keys, but that’s not to say the anthemic scream along stuff was lacking. A thunderous “Howlin’ for You” and crunchy “Your Touch” got the night going early, and Carney – seated at the front of the stage in the Keys’ normal way – was a windup toy unleashed as he kept the band moving at a brisk pace.
The duo has a long history of solid local shows, having come up just down the road in Akron, Ohio. They were originally slated to play Ruoff in 2020 as part of their tour for 2019’s “Let’s Rock.” After COVID-19 shut down that tour, they recorded and released “Delta Kream” and “Dropout Boogie” in succession.
Auerbach’s voice was sweeter and softer than at previous Black Keys shows I’ve attended, and his guitar tone has also polished up. Both led to a beautiful version of “Everlasting Light” near the end of the show, which drew a large crowd but was by no means a sellout.
His softer touch played really well on the new stuff and kept things interesting on the blues side, but it took a bit of the energy out of some, though not all, of the older songs.
“Ten Cent Pistol” and their cover of The Sonics’ “Have Love, Will Travel” were missing some of that gravely blues voice and yelling that Auerbach has been shedding over the years. Even “Tighten Up,” one of the greats, was good but just a little too pretty.
The difference was on display during an encore performance of “Little Black Submarines.” The softer opening was gorgeous, but the heavy ending could have used a bit more edge.
The crowd around me rose above my nerdy nitpicking, however, bellowing its approval for nearly every song.
The older hits still drew the biggest applause, but the new songs – “Wild Child,” “Your Team is Looking Good” and “It Ain’t Over” – were rock solid and cheered as such.
The lighting and overall production work were also excellent.
The show started with a video introduction from comedian David Cross, whose faux outrage over The Black Keys’ “satanic lyrics” holding sway over our children may have actually played pretty well at a local school board meeting. He even wore a shirt bearing the abbreviated name of his fake parenting group, which, again, may not immediately be seen as satire in certain places in this state.
Overall, what followed Cross’ introduction was a crowd-pleasing set with a mix of everything the band has to offer. The Black Keys are still, even after 18 months of forced grounding during the pandemic, one of the world’s most high-flying modern rock bands.
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Rory Appleton is the pop culture reporter at IndyStar. Contact him at 317-552-9044 and firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @RoryDoesPhonics.