Don’t go discounting the future of rock ‘n’ roll just yet.
The venerable genre may be overshadowed right now by other sounds, styles and fashions in American culture, and some folks seem intent on writing its obituary.
But not so fast, declares The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach: One spark, one youthful blast of energy, one riff heard round the world, can set off the next rock revolution.
“There’s no telling where the music business is going to go. But in terms of rock ‘n’ roll and kids playing electric guitars: Man, I think all it takes is just one band with one song — you know, one 18-year-old kid writing a crazy-good song,” Auerbach says. “And it’ll change the whole landscape. It’s as easy as that.”
The guitarist sees historical parallels that suggest the powder keg is rolling into place.
“As watered-down and commercial as hip-hop has gotten, it’s almost like hip-hop nowadays is sort of like rock was in the ’80s. It’s kind of bloated and rolling in dough. It all sounds the same,” he says. “I think it’s just a matter of time — someone’s going to do something (in revolt).”
Greta Van Fleet, the young Michigan quartet whose Zeppelinesque sound has proved divisive, gets nothing but kudos from Auerbach.
“Listen, I’m never going to dis anybody for playing music and doing what they love. I’m too old to be doing that,” he says. “It’s cool. Maybe their fans don’t know some of the references that others can hear so easily. It’s just a whole new world of music fans ready to hear some (rock).”
Auerbach and his bandmate, childhood drummer friend Patrick Carney, have certainly done their part carrying the flag for gritty, guitar-driven music. Their kinetic and catchy work — fresh-sounding but steeped in tradition — has made The Black Keys one of the handful of 21st-century rock bands to rise to chart-topping, arena-headlining status.
The Ohio-bred duo, this time joined by another two guitarists and a bassist, will flex that muscle Saturday at Little Caesars Arena, an early stop on a Black Keys’ tour supporting the summer album “Let’s Rock.” The run kicked off Sept. 19 at L.A.’s Wiltern Theatre.
The tour follows a four-year break that Auerbach describes as a need, not a choice: Facing burnout, The Black Keys opted to fade away for a while. Not that Auerbach and Carney lay low, exactly. Both carried on with individual projects, including a busy schedule for Auerbach in his role as producer at his Nashville studio. That work included 2015’s Grammy-winning album “Tell Me I’m Pretty” by Cage the Elephant.
Still, onstage this past week, the band feels rejuvenated and repurposed. The guitarist-vocalist says the added musicians — old Ohio pals Zach and Andy Gabbard of the Shams, along with veteran musician Delicate Steve — have brought a new punch to the music with the ironic effect of taking The Black Keys back to their two-man roots.
“It feels almost better than it’s ever been, to be honest, with this crew we have playing with us — three electric guitars, bass and drums,” Auerbach says. “For some reason, it sounds almost more like the way our old records sounded than it ever has onstage. So it feels really good up there.”
Also aboard is another old compatriot, helping give the show an arena-worthy bang.
“With the whole big stage, all the lights, it’s wild,” says Auerbach. “The guy who runs our lights, Mike Grant, is one of our oldest employees. He was touring in the minivan with us back in the day. So he’s just been letting it go wild. There’s all kinds of crazy (stuff) going on in my head during the show.”
The Black Keys’ reactivation was spurred by an even deeper Ohio connection — one that goes back to Auerbach’s teen fascination with the playing of Glenn Schwartz, the Cleveland guitarist best known for his work with the James Gang.
Auerbach found himself working in his Nashville studio with the veteran musician and fellow James Gang guitarist Joe Walsh, and the experience got the mental wheels turning.
“We were playing all of Glenn’s old songs, all the ones I would listen to when I was 17, 18, when I was first playing with Pat (Carney). And it was clear and plain as day that his DNA was all over The Black Keys stuff that I’d done,” Auerbach recounts. “As soon as I finished that record, I called Pat. Ever since then, it’s been very electric guitar-centric.
“It just brought me right back to that place — being 18, watching Glenn’s playing and just being so floored by it. It gave me the same feeling of wanting to immediately go play music with Pat. It’s so funny how it worked out.”
It has been 17 years since The Black Keys emerged out of Akron as yet another indie band plying its stuff amid the garage-rock revival. And it has been a decade since the duo’s mainstream stature rose dramatically, via a series of hit albums (“Attack & Release,” “Brothers,” “El Camino”) that abruptly made them darlings of radio and awards shows.
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The Detroit scene of the era proved crucial to the cause, Auerbach says. Although the Ohio band wasn’t affiliated with bands and goings-on in the Motor City, it was keenly aware of the garage-rock explosion happening there, via bands such as the Dirtbombs, Detroit Cobras, Rocket 455 and ultimately the White Stripes.
“We wouldn’t even be here without that whole garage rock resurgence that was happening around the Jim Diamond studio (in Detroit),” he says. “That renaissance was what we kind of got dragged into, and it helped. It gave us our little head start.”
And it made sense that so much of the stuff was rising from the Midwest.
“You can’t deny that there’s just the Rust Belt musical aesthetic,” Auerbach says. “It’s in the subconscious. We’re just wired a certain way.”
Auerbach is happy to rave on about Detroit’s musical heritage — and not just to butter up the thousands of fans he’s about to visit at Little Caesars Arena. At age 40, he still enthuses like an 18-year-old when it comes to rhapsodizing about music, including a certain towering Motor City institution.
“Honestly, I feel like music is maybe the greatest form of expression that humanity has come up with. It’s like the mountaintop,” he says. “And for me personally, those things they did at Motown are just like the greatest things that humanity has ever concocted. It doesn’t get any better.”
Indeed, Motown remains a lodestar for Auerbach as he nurtures his record label and studio, Easy Eye Sound.
“You didn’t even have to know English to love Motown songs — the melodies are so good. Then the musicians are so insane and all the engineers are the best. There was no chink in their armor. No soft spot anywhere.”
Auerbach has little to say about the strange, running beef between The Black Keys and Detroit native Jack White, which came to light in 2012 when White banned Auerbach from his Nashville studio. After years of periodic flare-ups — including the alleged threat of fisticuffs at one point — White praised the band in a Rolling Stone interview this summer.
Asked about the feud, Auerbach seems reluctant to address the topic, saying only: “Man, I really don’t know. I mean, you know as much as I do. I don’t know anything to add.”
For now, the focus is on the touring road ahead. The Black Keys have 28 shows left on a schedule that will take them into November, and while Carney and Auerbach are still contemplating their 2020 plans, they say they’re definitely scaling back the touring pace that dominated their lives for so many years.
“I would say that if you’re in Europe, you might want to book a ticket to Detroit,” Auerbach says with a laugh. “Because I think we’re going to keep the touring very simple and very North American-focused for the moment.”
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Black Keys
With Modest Mouse and Jessy Wilson
7 p.m. Saturday
Little Caesars Arena
2645 Woodward, Detroit
$39.50 and up