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Cinco de Mayo with the Black Keys

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Three words: Just. Plain. Filthy.

Gritty, guttural, bluesy, primal, loud, and sleazily beautiful, the Black Keys are a bullet train straight backward to the roots of rock and roll – but it’s hard to contend that they are in any way a benchmark of where rock and roll is right now.

To examine some of the top grossing arena rock acts of the day (Foo Fighters, Springsteen, DMB, U2, Coldplay, and I must begrudgingly include Nickelback), rock and roll played the way the Keys play it just isn’t the type of blissful sludge that you would expect could usher in such a large and raucous crowd to a venue the size of Power Balance Pavilion.

What Dan Auerbach, Patrick Carney and friends proved on Cinco de Mayo (and continue to prove each time they play) is that maybe, just maybe, true rock and roll isn’t dead just yet.

Over the top statement? Maybe. But if you were there, it should be hard to ignore that feeling in your gut, like a fist woven out of guitars and drums had just socked you in it.

The haymakers came early, as the Black Keys elevated an already delirious crowd (likely delirious from the moment and from a breezy day of margaritas and Tecates) by opening with the sharp licks and get-drunk-shout-along chorus of “Howlin’ for You.”

After a solid but very bass-heavy one hour set from openers Arctic Monkeys, what was immediately noticeable about the Keys during “Howlin’” was just how good they sounded. In a cavernous arena not usually noted for its sonic fortitude, their thunderous riffs and calculated distortion was flowing beautifully out of a sprawling mountain of speakers.

Alongside the White Stripes, the Black Keys helped establish a sense of acceptance for two-man, guitar-drum combo rock groups – but these days, they’re bringing along some help, with two accompanying musicians on bass, guitar and keyboards bringing up the rear. But after sending things into maniacal orbit with their most recent hit “Gold on the Ceiling,” the “other” two departed to let Auerbach and Carney get back to their roots.

Though much of the Keys’ current success is wrapped up in their most recent albums “El Camino” and “Brothers" (13 of the evening’s 20 songs stemmed from those two albums), you could feel the longer-tenured fans blow a collective gasket (that includes this reporter) when the duo fired up “Thickfreakness,” from the 2003 album of the same name. It was the friskiest and probably dirtiest song of the night, with spastic time and tempo changes and licks that would make a swamp feel squeaky-clean.

The duo followed that with a few tunes such as “Girl is on My Mind” and “I’ll Be Your Man” before welcoming their new supporting cast back to the stage, as Auerbach plucked out the opening to “Little Black Submarines” (perhaps better known by its chief lyric “a broken heart is blind”) with a solo on a gorgeous steel Dobro before giving way to a jamming crescendo that rivaled anything Led Zeppelin could have dared to conjure up.

It’s easy to take a minute to wonder if there were two camps of Keys fans at Power Balance Pavilion on Saturday night: those who prefer that older format of just the duo, or those who lust for the extra layers of playful fuzz and whomp provided by their new four-piece incarnation.

Nope, no dissention in that building. Who has time to nit-pick one format or the other while wailing along to the “woah-WOAH-oh-oh” of “Lonely Boy;” and yes, there were plenty of people dancing like this guy.

Music that can make thousands of Sacramentans all move like that? Maybe blood-in-the-mud rock and roll really is still alive?

A Black Keys concert is one way to help ensure it.

Check out the setlist from the evening with YouTube song samples on Setlist.fm.

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