In the Land of Arena Rock
By Amanda Norris, Staff Writer
Last Sunday, March 4, the Ohio State University’s Basketball arena, the Schottenstein Center, played host to The Black Keys and their opening act, Arctic Monkeys. The show was part of their ongoing U.S. Tour, consistently booked in large-scale venues.
I have a four-letter word for arena shows that my editor tells me we are not allowed to print. Let’s just say, I finally get “The Wall” and the rantings of Oasis concert-goers after the infamous Knebworthincident. And I get those things for two reasons: (1) a successful viewing of a stadium show depends very much on your seats and (2) the successful booking of a stadium show depends very much on a band’s mainstream recognition, which for fans and bands alike, is both a blessing and a curse.
Our seats were bad. Tragically, bordering on comically, bad. Upper deck, left of the stage, one row from the rafters. My friend had gotten somewhat scammed by the jaded clerk at Ticketmaster and, due to the diligent and non-bribe accepting good people guarding the entrances to every deck but our own, it was painfully obvious that the only thing we could do was accept our fate and try to make the most of it.
Despite my lackluster physical position, I am in a pretty good place mentally before the show. Arctic Monkeys are about to take the stage and the 14-year-old fan girl in me has got the jitters. Arctic Monkeys were my favourite band in middle school/early high school. Arctic Monkeys were the reason I spelled it favourite. Arctic Monkeys were my first ever actual concert. In the context of my musical life timeline, they are kind of a big deal.
To the majority of concert-goers at The Schottenstein Center on this March night however, it is clear that they are not a big deal.
To put it in perspective, the last time I saw Arctic Monkeys, I was 15. It was at the Newport Music Hall, right after Favourite Worst Nightmarehad hit the shelves. The bar was packed. I got a cigarette burn in the mosh pit simply because the crowd was going so incredibly hard for their set. I had to keep fighting for my position in the third row and everyone knew the words.
The arena is half empty when they take the stage. I know this because I have a bird’s eye view from which to survey the scene--and the boredom. Even the floor is at about half-capacity, and no one starts to move anything but their head until they are nearly finished--even then, things are kept civil. No 15-year-olds are getting cigarette burns--which might be a health benefit, now that I think about it, but it is far less rock ‘n' roll.
The last time I saw Arctic Monkeys, Alex Turner was a 21-year-old Brit of few words, almost all of which bordered on snark. It was at least five songs before he spoke and when he did, it was a clipped “We’re the Arctic Monkeys,” before launching into round two of no-nonsense rock.
This time around, he speaks instantly. He says things, like “How’re we doing Columbus?” and “Are you guys excited for The Black Keys?” And then I realize, he is saying opener things. And this makes sense, because they are an opener. Most of the people here have no wish for a cigarette burn, have no need for snarky clipped sentences. What they need is for Turner to provide enough time for them to drink at least two $6 beers and then promptly get off the stage. My 14-year-old self is crushed.
Their set is decent. Yes, they open with the rather lackluster “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair,” off of the most recent Suck It and See. But they play the hits too: “I Bet That You Look Good On the Dancefloor” and “When the Sun Goes Down.” And the entire time, rows of people stand to let stragglers find their seats just to sit promptly back down.
This is what you get when you are a success. You trade fans for audiences. You ask, “How’re we doing, Columbus? Are you as good as when I left you last?” We’re alright. And we’re sorry kid, but we don’t think we’ve met before.
The house lights come on in between bands. Crowds back from the concessions stands and the late arrivers fill the seats. When The Black Keys finally take the stage--after an introduction from the cd101 DJs which included an “O-H” “I-O” that got a better response than Arctic Monkeys--they are playing to a near-packed house.
They open with “Howlin for You” off of Brothers. And the crowd digs it. At least the floor set digs it. The two girls directly in front of me are making duckfaces into one of their iPhones, seemingly unaware that the show has started. The troupe of four boys behind me is discussing their work schedule for the next week and will continue with various inane topics throughout the set--quite loudly, I might add.
For me, the Keys have always been a magnetic force--a power duo that commands respect from behind their kit and strings, respectively. I remember passing around a burned copy of The Big Come Up, accompanied by hushed tones of “You’ve got to hear this, man. It’s two guys from Akron playing straight blues. You’ve got to hear it.” They still command respect and they are still two guys from Akron, but hushed tones are no longer synonymous with The Black Keys.
My mom informed me yesterday afternoon that the characters on "The Young and the Restless" got tickets to see their show in one of last week’s episodes. My brother and his old fraternity brothers were attending: “Everyone’s going to this concert, Amanda. People that don’t even like music are going to this concert. Sean’s going to this concert.” Creed is Sean’s favorite band.
I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. I love The Black Keys. I want other people to love The Black Keys. I am happy for them. But again, from my position it is hard to tell whether much of the arena loves The Black Keys or loves being able to say that they were there.
I say that because, about seven songs in, they begin playing from the old catalog and, when they do so, the crowd’s reaction is marked. They play “Girl is on My Mind” off of Rubber Factory. The acoustics in the rafters sound worse than when they recorded it in an actual abandoned rubber factory, but I am loving it just the same. They follow it up with “I’ll Be Your Man” off of The Big Come Up and I am beyond psyched. I love it when bands mix up the live repertoire and give a trip down memory lane. I came to see The Black Keys, not El Camino Live, and Pat and Dan seem to understand that.
The guys behind us don’t seem to understand that, though. “I don’t know any of these. Do you know any of these?” Next is “Your Touch” and I literally cannot believe my luck. Three of my favorite Black Keys tracks in quick succession. It is almost too much. I am ecstatic, even from my perch. And then, “Little Black Submarines.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love “Little Black Submarines.” It is unquestionably one of my favorite tracks off of El Camino. When it came out, we dubbed it their “Stairway to Heaven.” And the comparison fits. It’s the longest track on the other-wise fast-paced record. It starts slow, builds before exploding after the bridge. It invokes a lighter salute, and most of the arena is singing along. And the comparison fits because everyone in Madison Square Garden knows the words to “Stairway,” but only a handful know the words to “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” And that isn’t necessarily good or bad, it’s just different.
The Black Keys played their first show in Akron to a crowd of about seven people. Now, they are playing to a sold-out basketball arena. I was lucky enough to catch them along the way, and it feels different.
They play as tight as the day they started. They’ve mixed up their sound but that’s what bands are supposed to do--no one wants to hear the debut album rehashed 10 years down the road. But all things considered, they haven’t changed all that much. What has changed is the perception of them and the perception means everything for a live event.
Maybe there is truth to the hipster cliché. Maybe people do only like lesser-known groups for the obscurity factor, the indie cred. Maybe, but I don’t buy it. I’d like to think it’s the intimacy factor. There is something to be said for loving a band when they can hardly fill a bar. To stand on the floor and not just listen to the show, but be a part of the show. To buy them a beer when the set is over. In arenas, you lose that. And yes, part of it is being in the stands rather than on the floor, but isn’t the floor section just an attempt to recreate what the bar atmosphere actually guarantees?
They end the main set with “Lonely Boy,” a single off El Camino that has gotten nearly constant airplay since its release. It takes them about 10 minutes to come back for the encore. It takes so long because they are lowering disco balls, one large one that takes up more of the stage than Pat and Dan, and a supplementary one towards the back of the floor.
This is the same band that released a cover album of Junior Kimbrough, a no-frills blues singer whose influence was what made Dan Auerbach want to play music in the first place, and they are lowering disco balls for an encore. It’s one thing to know that an encore is expected; it’s another thing to plan for one with props. The cynic in me desperately wants to yell, “Disco’s dead!”
The disco balls are for “Everlasting Light,” the first song of the encore. They cast shadows on the entire arena, bathing the seats in tiny, rotating orbs of light. The effect is visually stunning, and somewhat unsettling because it isn’t The Black Keys. The images of rural America and steel bars that they have sporadically projected onto the backing screen throughout the show, that’s The Black Keys. Not disco balls. Not planned encores. They end the night with “I Got Mine.” One look around the Schott and it is obvious that they got theirs--but at what cost?
"The Wall" was Pink Floyd’s attempt to--somewhat counter-productively--come to terms with the alienation they felt from their audience. Noel and Liam had zero qualms about playing to 250,000 people at Knebworth, except perhaps that they couldn’t do it every day of their careers. It’s hard to know where the Keys fall in the mix, just like it’s hard to know where the fans fall in the mix. I know some kids on the floor that had the time of their lives, but the bird’s eye view was stark.
So it goes, in the land of arena rock.