If there was any lingering doubt that the Black Keys have what it takes to headline arenas, it was erased during the rock duo's sold-out Madison Square Garden set Monday night.
Festival audiences know the Keys’ power in front of large crowds, but when experienced in a venue long graced by the rock/blues legends whose influences co-founders Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney wear on their sleeves, it’s undeniable. Even Butch Allen’s impressive production/lighting design and Karl Lemieux’s mammoth wall of ’70s-style videos faded against the pair’s wall of sound.
Another sign the Keys have arrived in the big league: cheers were just as loud for album cuts off their December release “El Camino” as they were for hit singles from their breakthrough, Grammy-winning mid-2010 album, “Brothers.” This — plus the Garden show’s 15-minute sellout time — bode well for the 30 dates left on the band’s North American tour, launched in Auerbach and Carney’s native Ohio earlier this month.
“We’re gonna play some songs, just the two of us now,” said vocalist-guitarist Auerbach, joining drummer Carney on some early tracks from their decade-long run near the middle of the set, with touring bassist Gus Seyffert and keyboardist John Wood offstage. Instead of giving the music an acoustic or lo-fi spin, the two created a fierce, full-bodied sound most of today’s top rock bands couldn’t match with triple the manpower.
“Howling for You” and “Next Girl” (from “Brothers”) opened the 21-song, 90-minute set, with Auerbach taking care to address the fans in the nosebleed seats. But strong performances, along with frequent reimaginings of the show as a ’70s-style rockumentary on the huge video screen behind them, helped create an intimate feel.
Highlights culled from the band’s seven studio albums included “Your Touch,” “I’ll Be Your Man” (theme song from HBO’s “Hung”), “Strange Times,” “She’s Long Gone,” “I Got Mine” and one of several concert-friendly “El Camino” ravers, “Lonely Boy.”
The sole disappointment — aside from the omitted classic “Too Afraid to Love You” — was the subdued take on hit “Everlasting Light.” After illuminating the arena with two giant disco balls for an encore, “Light” called out for a stronger ending that never arrived, though it may have been cut short to meet the venue’s 11 p.m. deadline.
British indie rock band the Arctic Monkeys earned its hour-long, 17-song opening set with a muscular, punk-tinged performance, despite some audio vocal problems evident at times when lead singer/guitarist Alex Turner spoke to the audience. The Domino Records quartet, out in support of 2011’s “Suck It and See,” appeared to bring a solid turnout of followers gained since its hit 2006 studio album debut.