One of the best success stories in 21st-century American rock ’n’ roll has been the rise of the Black Keys, who began as an upstart indie duo in Akron, Ohio, in 2001 and gradually ascended the charts over an eight-album span that culminated in 2014’s “Turn Blue” hitting No. 1. A big turning-point was a 2010 move to Nashville, which leader Dan Auerbach says opened up his world as an artist.
“Living in Nashville has definitely changed the way I think about music and the way that I record it,” he testifies in a quote that was printed in the small program that “Austin City Limits” gives out to its studio audiences at the show’s tapings. Monday night at ACL Live, Auerbach demonstrated precisely what he meant, playing a 13-song set with an ace seven-piece backing crew of mostly Nashville players that was a world apart from the Black Keys’ garage-rock bread-and-butter.
The taping primarily showcased “Waiting on a Song,” Auerbach’s second solo album, which came out in June on his Easy Eye Sound label. It’s a fine record, one that draws from a broad range of American roots music genres including country, folk, soul, R&B and traditional blues.
The songs sounded terrific in a live setting, thanks in large part to a supporting cast that included several musicians with extensive resumes. Anchoring the back row were 77-year-old drummer Gene Chrisman and keyboardist Bobby Wood, whose work as part of the Memphis Boys house band at American Sound Studios included playing on classics such as Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto,” Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.” Flanking them on either side were bassist Dave Roe, a veteran of Johnny Cash’s band, and keyboardist Ray Jacildo, a J.D. McPherson sideman and the youngest presence on the back row.
At far stage right on the back row was mandolinist Pat McLaughlin, a longtime Nashville songwriting ace who’s a key figure here. He co-wrote eight of the 10 tracks on Auerbach’s new album, and his backing vocals throughout the night provide a gutsy punch and soulful foil to Auerbach’s assured and appealing tenor leads.
One carry-over from the Black Keys is that Auerbach still puts guitars front and center, clearly evident in the placement of three guitarists at the fore of the stage. To Auerbach’s left was Russ Pahl, whose hundreds of credits include a lot of pedal steel work, but on this night he consistently delivered terrific tone and chops on electric guitar. On the other side was the youngest of the bunch, Nick Bockrath of Cage the Elephant, whose beaming smiles revealed the thrill he gets from being in this lineup of legends.
Nearly everything in the set sounded great at ACL Live, with the album’s title track (which opened the show) and the anthemic closer “Shine on Me” standing out in particular. Auerbach worked eight of the album’s 10 cuts into the 13-song set, giving the crowd an extra treat by adding three as-yet unreleased songs. One, “Somewhere Between Eau Claire and East Moline,” was co-written with John Prine, as was the album’s title track.
A special spark near the end of the night came from bluesman Robert Finley, who performed two songs (“Medicine Woman” and “Get It While You Can”) that he apparently recorded recently with Auerbach and his crew. Finley, who’s been enjoying a late-career renaissance since the 2016 release of his album “Age Don’t Mean a Thing,” wowed the audience with a commanding presence and soulful vocal style.
Auerbach spoke only briefly during the swiftly paced hourlong performance, mostly just to introduce his fellow players and to offer up a sincere thanks to “Austin City Limits,” which he’d played twice before with the Black Keys. “It’s a show I’ve been watching since I was a little kid,” he said. “It’s been completely dedicated to music since it began.” On this night, then, Auerbach and his band fit squarely into the heart of that tradition.
Auerbach will return to Austin for a concert with the Easy Eye Sound Revue at Stubb’s on February 23, 2018.
1. Waiting on a Song
2. Livin’ in Sin
3. Malibu Man
4. Stand By My Girl
5. Somewhere Between Eau Claire and East Moline
6. Pull Me Under Love
8. Medicine Woman
9. Get It While You Can
10. Never in My Wildest Dreams
11. Tangled Love
12. Show Me
13. Shine On Me