Black Keys deliver hits—but not much else—at Sleep Train Arena

When I told friends about my Tuesday night destination—the Black Keys concert at Sleep Train Arena—I got a lot of initially excited responses. Like, “Awesome! Love the Black Keys!” followed quickly by, “Wait, arena? Really?”

The Ohio-born duo of guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney did, indeed, pack Sleep Train on election night. But for some reason, the casual listener doesn’t think of the Keys as being arena-level famous.

It all arguably started with the band’s sixth record Brothers, which nabbed the Keys three Grammy Awards. The 2011 follow-up El Camino went platinum in the U.S. and double-platinum in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, winning a few Grammys as well. The band’s latest release Turn Blue debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

Many credit this dramatic rise to the Keys’ partnership with producer Danger Mouse, which started in 2008. But the band’s sound hasn’t exactly stayed stagnant since then either. Turn Blue saw the Keys enter psychedelic territory in a subdued fashion—groove-driven, thematic, cohesive and devoid of any real hit singles. The Rolling Stones called it the band’s best yet.

Fans were definitely stoked, and the set was filled with hopelessly catchy, crowd-pleasing hits—”Gold on the Ceiling,” “Howlin’ For You,” “Everlasting Light,” “Tighten Up”—and even brought out its first album with ”Leavin’ Trunk.” My favorite song all night was the grungy, slightly psychedelic “Strange Times” off Attack & Release, a welcomed break in pace. The audience’s favorite was, obviously, the Keys’ smash hit “Lonely Boy.”

It was the perfect high-inducing song to end on. But then the Keys came back for a strange encore with two slow-burning tracks off Turn Blue. The high dissipated, slightly salvaged by an acoustic-to-electric version of “Little Black Submarines.”

Auerbach didn’t say much beyond “Thanks you” and “Come on, Sacramento” a couple times. There were lights and some video—mostly blue-tinted, obviously—but the biggest visual effect was merely a curtain falling down. To reveal, ahem, more lights.

Despite achieving that arena level, the Black Keys do not make a great arena band. Arena rock in general is just so boring unless you’re standing front-and-center. No matter how great the music sounded, arena shows require more infectious energy, more spectacle, more production value. Especially when you’re spending $80 for general admission.

The rock band ethos, however, requires a no-frills show. The two don’t line up.

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