All Keyed Up

It's not all glamour for the Black Keys, but it is all paying off.

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The Black Keys are headed down the road to success - — and they're still in that van.
The Black Keys are headed down the road to success — and they're still in that van.

Patrick Carney eats his dinner standing up. Munching asparagus backstage at Columbus's PromoWest Pavilion, the Black Keys drummer has no time to sit down. His is the harried, sleep-deprived look of a soldier in the thick of combat. Just a day ago, Carney was in Atlanta, laying down tracks for a new EP well into the night; then he awoke at 6 a.m. to take the wheel for his leg of the all-night drive back to Ohio.

Upon arriving in Columbus, Carney and bandmate Dan Auerbach load in all their gear and merch, do soundcheck and phone interviews, then greet friends and family who made the trip from the band's native Akron. In less than an hour, the Keys' opening gig for Beck and Dashboard Confessional gets under way. Carney and Auerbach should be used to all this by now -- they've been on tour for all but five weeks this year -- but Auerbach's weary countenance says otherwise.

"I don't think it's possible to really get used to this," he says. "Especially doing a tour like this, where it's all meant for bus travel. The other guys get to sleep in the bus; they wake up the next day at the club." Despite the big-time tour, though, the Black Keys still travel by van. They can't afford a bus. "We have to drive all night, be at the club on time, and work. It's fuckin' insane. We're exhausted."

It's been that kind of year. Last time we spoke with the Keys, they were hanging out on a summer day on the porch of their ramshackle Akron abode. Their aptly titled debut, The Big Come-Up, was starting to garner widespread acclaim, and the band went on to earn props in Rolling Stone and myriad other mags, land a tour with Sleater-Kinney, and sign with the blues powerhouse Fat Possum Records, where they've become one of the label's most talked-about acts.

Their new album, Thickfreakness, has sold more than 10,000 copies since its April release.

"The Keys are beginning to get that swell built up," says Matthew Johnson, head of Fat Possum. "[The album has] been strong and consistent. There's been reorders, and everything is going really well. Each show helps."

Especially when those shows come alongside platinum rockers. Beck is one of the Black Keys' most ardent supporters; he handpicked them to open the current tour and has been outspoken in magazine interviews about his appreciation for their raw, untamed sound.

The hype is starting to pay off, as the band's Columbus set shows. The guys play to a half-full venue -- not bad by opening-act standards -- with about 1,500 listeners, most of them fresh-faced Dashboard fans, warmly greeting the band's backwoods blues.

"It's good to be back in Ohio," Auerbach announces as the Keys launch into a savage, wild-eyed stomp off of Thickfreakness. Strangling his guitar, Auerbach struts and quakes, making contorted facial expressions normally reserved for lovemaking. Carney swings his arms like a kid on the monkey bars, his bass drum approximating cannon fire. By the end of the Keys' 30-minute set, lines are forming at the T-shirt booth. Another crowd won over.

"You guys are like the White Stripes -- with a really good drummer," one fan says to Auerbach.

He smiles and thanks the guy. Through their rising success, Carney and Auerbach have remained humble and approachable. They're still disarmingly funny and polite, and they've passed on a scad of major-label deals, preferring to keep things simple with Fat Possum. "We took about a month and a half to talk with the different labels," Auerbach says. "And just from that month and a half, we realized how fuckin' difficult it was to communicate with major labels, but how easy it was to communicate with Fat Possum."

Three more weeks on the Beck tour, then the Keys embark on a swing through Europe. Though their recently scheduled Cleveland gig was nixed in favor of a Philly tour stop, they'll be back in town in August to open for blues legend Solomon Burke at Cain Park. Then it's likely back on the road again, slowly building up their following.

"It's so gradual," Carney says. "Things have been going better and better every day, so it's just become the routine."

"We're pretty thankful," Auerbach adds.

So are we.

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