Review: The Black Keys, Morning Benders @ Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN 8/12/10

Photo via Expresso Beans

The Flannels Rock Nashville’s Grandest Stage

The incongruous twin bill performing at the mother church of country music on Thursday night (Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium) gave the overflowing crowd of twenty-somethings two acutely different displays of how to play a rock show. Watching the skinny-jeaned opening Morning Benders perform their heady (as in the thought-provoking/non-granola meaning of the word) art-pop under the dull glow of stagnant house lights was something akin to viewing a microorganism under a microscope. Like most opening acts, they didn’t have the luxury of their own grand stage set-up or lighting rig as patrons slowly filed into their tightly assigned pew seats. Luckily for the Benders, the talent speaks for itself.

The baby-faced, skinny, and downright delicate California quartet opened the show with the slow build of “Stitches” from this year’s stellar Big Echo LP. I was interested to see how they would match the grandeur of their recorded product, with its prevalent Wall of Sound, and although some songs like “Cold War (Nice Clean Fight)” were expectedly bare, the show mostly featured a lustrous and full sound with kicky drum lines and Chris Chu’s super limber vibrato that worked well in the excellent acoustics of the old church on songs like the edifying “Mason Jar” and “Promises”. The line “I can’t help thinkin’ we grew up too fast” was incredibly appropriate, given the fact that this was the band’s first Nashville show on its most historic and grandest stage. Needless to say, there are about 2,300 Nashville songwriters who would be insanely jealous. Knowing their anonymity amongst most of the Black Keys shirt-wearing fans, the band asked “How many of you have ever heard of us?” to mostly crickets. That’s okay though, if the Benders continue to deliver quality product on par with Big Echo, they’ll be bringing their own headlining show to the hallowed stage soon enough. As the show-closing hit song “Excuses” started with a whisper without the accompaniment of an orchestra, Pet Sounds style guitar layering, or a full backing chorus of friends (as on record), it was intriguing to see how it would pan out. Frontman Chris Chu then layered his vocals on loop giving it the full album feel before grabbing his guitar and washing the droning lyrics into a loud stew of heavy-riffing guitar and finally grabbing the full attention of the filled-out crowd to close out the short set. If you haven’t already, check out Big Echo, undoubtedly one of the best front-to-back albums of the year thus far, nary a dull moment.

For a peek, check out this behind-the-scene look at the recording of “Excuses”:

The Morning Benders – “Excuses” Yours Truly session [YouTube]

Next, the Black Keys took center stage and fastidiously stomped through a tightly rehearsed and note-perfect set spanning the band’s short and prolific career on a tire-themed stage (Marshalls stacked on heavily-treaded tires, check.). It was refreshing to see a hot band coming off a hot album not bulls*** their loyal, longtime fans by taking the easy road with a set of mostly hits from their recently released #3 album. Instead, Dan and Pat gave us cuts from Rubber Factory, thickfreakness, Attack and Release (“Strange Times”=righteous) and Magic Potion in addition to the anticipated new songs. They know people wanna hear “Stack Shot Billy”, “Ten Cent Pistol”, and “Howlin’ For You” perhaps just as much as “Sinister Kid”, and delivered a nice mix. Dan Auerbach notably made mention that last time they rocked the Ryman, their opener was “dubious” at best — referring to the “Dancing Outlaw,” the PBS-documented mountain man back country dancer Jesco White, who was kicked out after a reported train wreck of a performance. “We’re surprised they let us back in here after that,” Auerbach joked. The Black Keys once again delivered a no-frills type of rust-stained rock show that could have just as easily occurred at a smoky dark barroom in meth country Tennessee in the early 60’s as it could be happening before us in 2010 as ADD’d fans Twitter and text away (seriously? Texting in church? Gimme a break.).

I came to the show excited to see the guys perform with the backing duo they’ve been touring with (for about half of each show on new songs) and left thinking that these two make enough of a powerhouse racket on their own. The songs with the supporting musicians actually sounded more restrained, and dare I say, less ballsy. The line from “Tighten Up” — “Livin’ just to keep going/Goin’ just to keep sane” — and accompanying outro might be my favorite musical segment of the year and the song surprisingly came early in the hits-heavy 15-18 song set. The townied/frat bro’d audiophiles lapped it up and were definitely one of the more attentive and raucous crowds I’ve seen at 20 or so shows in the hallowed building. These guys are deserving of their newfound fame and mainstream recognition after all the years of hard touring and heavy recording. I just hope they don’t get too popular to play rooms much bigger than the Ryman, because it was perfect. Next time, just play a few more songs when people are paying $35 + fees to see your show (and judging by a lot of the crowd, going home with an armful of merch) and it will be more than perfect.

Girl Is on My Mind
The Breaks
Stack Shot Billy
Act Nice and Gentle
Strange Times
Everlasting Light
Next Girl
Chop and Change
Howlin’ for You
Tighten Up
She’s Long Gone
10 Cent Pistol
Your Touch
I Got Mine

Sinister Kid
Til I Get My Way

Note: sorry, no pictures, my +1 and expert photographer Mark A. Wise lost his credentials just a couple hours before the show due to a powers-that-be smackdown/SNAFU/bummer of epic proportions. Here’s a video of the opener that paints a picture, though…