On the Road With The Black Keys and Sleater-Kinney in 2003 — by Peter Relic, with photos by Melanie Pullen

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MAY THE ROAD RISE UP TO ROCK YOU
Peter Relic rolls out for a week on tour with The Black Keys & Sleater-Kinney

Originally published in Arthur No. 4 (May 2003), with original photography by Melanie Pullen shot at beautiful Amir’s Garden in Griffith Park (these photographs were later optioned to Fat Possum Records for promotional purposes)

“Rule Number One: Never make friends with a journalist.” I wagged my finger and slurped my coffee, assuring the two young men across from me I knew of what I spoke. “Rock hacks are fretful freeloaders out to steal your shine and misquote you every time.”

We were sitting at a back booth of Dodie’s, a greasy spoon on Market Street, Akron, Ohio. It was the final hayfeverish week of May, 2002. I had driven down from Cleveland to find out how the hell these fellas—Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, co-captains of the two-piece band The Black Keys—had created such a thrilling slab of raw-dog fatback juke joint blues as The Big Come Up, their brand new debut album. To hear the Keys tell it, simplicity was the key.

“We stopped talking about time signatures a long time ago,” Auerbach said.

“We’re de-evolving,” said Carney, a Duty Now For The Future glint in his eye.

“We’ve even removed the word ‘repertoire’ from our repertoire,” Auerbach added.

The following week The Cleveland Free Times ran my column about this band yet to play a gig outside Ohio who had made, quite simply, “one of the best American records you’ll hear this year.”

Pretty soon they did play outside Ohio. I tagged along to those Detroit and Chicago shows. By the end of ‘02, the good word about The Big Come Up had gotten around; Janet Weiss, drummer for Sleater-Kinney, testified in Rolling Stone that the stuff was up to snuff. 2003 was happily wrung in playing with Guided By Voices at a New Year’s Eve beer bash in Indianapolis. Then the call came: Would the band like to open up for Sleater-Kinney on tour? The Black Keys would fly with their equipment to Portland, Oregon, rent a van, and the West Coast leg would start there in Sleater-Kinney’s hometown. Perfect. Except that contract liability on the van stipulated that no one under 25 could drive the thing. But by then Rule Number One had been broken. And so 22-year old drummer/producer Patrick Carney and 23-year old singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach cannily roped in their over-30 Cleveland journo pal to act as de facto tour mensch. Best as I can remember, it went a little something like this…

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Saturday, February 1, 2003

“The last time there was a winter this bad I was too young to be bummed out by it,” Patrick says, piling his drum kit cases onto a cart at the curb of Cleveland Hopkins Airport. As the biting wind off Lake Erie cuts through Patrick and Dan’s farewell embraces with their girlfriends, I stare into the 7am sun. There is no warmth in its light.

Soon, Patrick [PC], Dan [DA] and myself are cramped three across in a dinky Continental plane en route to Minneapolis. DA, sitting next to me in his shiny blue Adidas top, pulls out his Snappy Strawberry Bubble Tape and tears off a few inches of gum to sugar up his craw. His lustrously bearded mug is tipped back in reverie as his ear goggles play Ali Farka Toure. Jim Thompson’s novel The Nothing Man is turned face down on his lap. Across the aisle PC is flipping through Mad magazine, his legs crunched up against the tray table. He’s wearing scuffed-up dust-colored shitkicker cowboy boots, arrowhead designs cut into the leather uppers, zippers up the sides and lethal pointed toes. Airports security made him take the boots off before we boarded. He could’ve been hiding an aircraft carrier in each one, see.

“Do you think we should agree to open for Ryan Adams?” PC asks me.

I cover my face with my hand.

“If he’s nice to me when I first meet him, we can build. If he’s not, there will be no second chance.”

“Get the brass knuckles ready, because when we play ‘Summer of ‘69’ he’s going to come out swinging,” DA says.

“We’re picking up a ripple here over Dupree, South Dakota, so I suggest you keep your seatbelts fastened.” I raise my window’s sticky plastic shutter. The sun is pronged at the end of the wing like an immolated marshmallow. I glance behind me where a kid, maybe 16, complexion of a greasy pizza, is wearing silver clamshell headphones and reading Nausea. An Amish girl, no more than 10, walks placidly down the aisle in a pale blue dress and white bonnet. Are Amish people allowed to fly? Far below where fir trees bristle, a river in the Cascade Mountains makes like a snake shedding its shiny carapace.

The tarmac in Portland is slick with rain. The plane jostles and skids to a nerve-shredding stop. Everyone is quiet. A little girl calls out from way in the back:

“Thank you mister airplane!”

Everyone exhales. The captain speaks: “If Portland is your final destination, please let those passengers with tight connections deplane first.”

Everyone stands up anyway, retrieving luggage, edging into the aisle.

“How many people on this plane do you think are coming to the show tonight?” I ask DA.

“All of ‘em. Because they’ve all got tight connections.”

A guy in front of us, noodling with his blue phone, turns around. “What show is that?”

“The Black Keys and Sleater-Kinney.”

“Can’t say as I ever heard of them.” He looks like a Microsoft prole, forking his fingers through his thinning black hair.

“What’s the last show you went to?”

Microsoft exhales and adjusts his trim framed black glasses. “Jerry Cantrell. I’d see him any time. He was great. Sounded just like Alice Of Chains, but without Layne Stanley.”

Sleater-Kinney fans are devoted. They’ll line up outside hours before the show and, when doors open, pour onto the floor to secure an optimum spot. This proves true throughout the tour, and means that as the opening band, The Black Keys play more often than not to a packed house. So it is that at 9:10 pm, as DA lays into the Harrier jet liftoff riff of new song “Thickfreakness,” the temperature in Portland’s already-full Crystal Ballroom rises in fevered response. PC, looming over his kit like Lon Chaney, falls upon his hi-hat and cracks his snare and the beat ricochets around the shadowy corners of the 89 year old ballroom. The fellas lock into the song’s choogling groove and I turn my attention to a guy approaching the merch table. “”Whoa, what is this, a 45?”
He picks up the top copy in the stack of carefully arranged 7”s of “The Moan” and looks at it incredulously. “They don’t make these anymore,” he says, putting it down and walking away. Sleater-Kinney Janet is next to me, selling her merch like hotcakes.

“A non-believer,” I say.

She shrugs, sells another t-shirt, two CDs and packet of badges.

“Your last name is Weiss?”

She nods.

“Houdini’s real last name was Weiss.”

Light leaps across Janet’s serious face. “How do I find out in I’m related to him?” “Attempt a manacled bridge jump into the Willamette River and see if you’re genetically inclined to survive,” I think to say, but do not. I will say this: Janet Weiss is related to Erich Weiss, who, as Harry Houdini, became the greatest escape artist this world has ever known. I do not know how I know this, except that over the next eight days I will see and hear Janet plays drums with such extraordinary power and dexterity that I cannot make out with my eyes how it is possible, and that is proof enough for me.

After the Keys come offstage, having finished with a fun-as-hell version of the Stooges’ “No Fun,” I stay and sell merch to the newly converted while Quasi plays a peculiar set of piano-driven harlequin minuets. Later, I trundle upstairs to catch Sleater-Kinney. I’m greeted by the serrated riff of “Words And Guitar,” Corin Tucker singing in her fiery soprano “I wanna turn turn you on, I play it all I play it all” as the frosted crystal chandelier quivers and sways and 1500 fans pogo on the old world maple ballroom dancefloor built on ball bearings and it looks like we all might hit our heads on the two-story high ceiling for joy, until the song stops on a dime and the band roars into a cover of Creedence’s “Fortunate Son” with such true aim (“Some folks are born made to wave the flag…ooh they’re red white and blue! It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no millionaire’s son!”) that it feels like this moment in American history is the very one that prompted John Fogerty to write the damn thing.

As Sleater-Kinney return for an encore, someone in the crowd is holding up a hand-made sign, and Janet solicitously reads its slogan into her microphone: “’Boobs Not Bombs’.” Carrie Brownstein explodes with laughter and steps to her mic: “It says ‘Books Not Bombs’!” She pauses, considering. “’Boobs Not Bombs’ though, that works too.”

Sunday, February 2, 2003

It’s a beautiful day for a drive to SF, we’re primed with premium java, the van drives like a dream, the evergreen landscape slips by as PC offers insightful non sequiturs (“Birds don’t have eyelids so they can keep an eye on their kids”) and DA plays a Sleepy John Estes tune with the immortal couplet “If the river was whiskey and I was a diving duck, I’d fly to the bottom and I never would come up.” Hours on and we rifle through our binders and ziploc bags stuffed with CDs and offer chagrined apologies and curses for not bringing many many more CDs.
“What seems like a lotta CDs when you are packing is really not so many when you’re out on the road,” DA says.

So it’s time for Led Zeppelin II, , and “Ramble On” rumbles in, and instantly The Black Keys reveal themselves to be a high school debate team in disguise.

“I like this song,” PC tells us, “but only because it’s about hobbits.”

“Oh no,” DA moans.

“You’re just jealous that you didn’t think to write a song mentioning Mordor first.”

“Yeah, just like I’m jealous that I don’t have hairy knuckles and feet.”

“Hey, how much longer to Mordor?”

“Why don’t you get out the map of Middle Earth and look.”

Hour number eight and my hands are one with the wheel, my knuckles turn white, welts rise along the lifelines of my palms, tenterhooks shred my gut, each man is alone now with his thoughts, my frayed heartstrings lower my mind into a deep dark well where the words I heard her say five days ago in a facile telephone dump dis echo against mottled stone…and now as the van dips and dives along the southward-winding California coast each mile of tire-bitten tar nudges my scorched core upward and with blood boiling in the cracks, my heart begins a natural magical mend. Pavement’s Cali classic Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is cranked, Malkmus keening “up to the top of the Shasta gulch/ to the bottom of the Tahoe lake/ man-made deltas and concrete rivers/ the South takes what the North delivers…”

I turn to PC as the song ends. “How do you rate that vocal performance?”

“10,” he says without hesitation, and falls off to sleep.

Driving onward the van becomes a sluicing sled over paved terrain forever snaking downward ravenously unraveling until eventually DA awakes, sits up in the back seats and asks how goes.

“I feel like a member of the Jamaican bobsled team,” I say.

“You look like a member of the Jamaican bobsled team,” he tells me, and lies back down.

We slip into the glittering Frisco night amidst bumper-to-bumpercar insanity and glide to the gaudy neon of the Phoenix Hotel. Eleven hours behind the wheel really makes bed heaven. As I settle beneath clean sheets, PC presses a nugget of Bay Area bumper crop procured from an obliging bellhop into my palm like a talisman reprieve from haunted dreams. Golden slumber comes to me with ease.

Monday, February 3, 2003

The morning’s first order of business: a trip into the Mission district to PC’s Uncle Ralph. “Did you ever see that Tom Waits movie Big Time?” PC says. “Ralph had a samurai haircut in it, playing two saxophones upside down on the floor, his legs in the air. But the thing about Ralph is he wasn’t showing off, he’s just being himself.”

We find Ralph’s cozy home built in that peculiar San Franciscan fashion wedged straight ahead on a steeply sloped street and he’s there on the stoop with his Ricker’s Weepers sideburns and mad professor spectacles, welcoming us warmly inside. We tromp out the back door through the sun-dappled rock garden and into the Ralph’s subspace music cave, where Ralph tootles on a clarinet fashioned with a slide made from PVC pipe and lows mournfully on a Turkish G-flat manzello. Coffee, coffee, we need coffee, and Ralph leads us down to the cafe on the corner singing the Patty Duke theme song: “Patty she likes rock’n’roll, a hot dog makes her lose control!”

At the cafe, all the fruit smoothies cost $3.95 except for the one called Tootsie’s Pleasure which costs $4.00. “For the times when you need that extra nickel of smoothness,” Ralph says.

We stand on the corner in the sun with our smoothies, coffees and falafels. I ask about the saxophone squall Ralph blew on Galaxie 500’s “Blue Thunder.” “Out of all the things I ever did,” he says, “that was one of them.”

“Jonathan Richman might come to the show tonight,” Ralph says. “If he does, he’ll bring ear plugs, because rock shows are too loud for him. He has sensitive hearing and a touch of tinnitus. Which I guess once you’ve got, you have for the remainder of your life. Tinnitus the first night of the rest of his hearing.” Jonathan Richman does not come to tonight’s show.

Ralph has to take care of some domestic chores, so we bid him adieu until the show and he passes me a copy of his new CD This Is! Ralph Carney which makes me happy. As we drive away, PC talks about Tin Huey, a seminal Akron New Wave band Ralph was in. “In 1979 they got to make an album for Warner Brothers. It was called Contents Dislodged During Shipment. One day while they were recording it, Captain Beefheart came by the studio and saw that Tin Huey had a song called ‘Puppet Wipes.’ Apparently Beefheart was disturbed by this title and pleaded with Ralph to change the title to ‘Puppet Lights.’

“The problem is when you have no puppet wipes, and you go a long time without wiping your puppet, then it looks bad when it gets under the puppet lights.”

We cruise the Haight until we find Ricardo’s Rooky Records And Dance Lessons. Out front a table is set up and four men are playing dominos. A woman walks by and says hello to one of them. One of the other men looks up from his tiles. “You didn’t forget me, did you?” he calls after her. “I didn’t remember you neither,” she says without breaking stride.

Otis Redding is wailing “Dreams” as we walk into Ricardo’s. “I quit,” says DA as soon as he hears Otis’s voice. The shop is tops: wall to wall 45s for two bucks a pop, three for $5.

Back at the hotel it’s time for naps and dips in the pool. As the balmy evening descends we roll up to the great Great American Music Hall, thrilling to see THE BLACK KEYS emblazoned on the grand marquee.
In a burgundy and green dressing room I sit on a bench covered in a satin sheet and watch the fellas draw up a set list with the applied diligence of two scouts building a pinewood derby car. “We oughtta play ‘Set You Free’ second, the full force liberation is right for Sleater-Kinney’s crowd,” DA says.

The building manager walks by and I ask him if it’s okay to leave our personal items in the dressing room. He looks at me: “Cheap Trick was here last week. They left three million dollars worth of guitars in this room and nothing went missing.” Which reminds me of something DA said the first time I met him: “I got 40 guitars but they don’t amass a thousand dollars value between them.”

In this gorgeous old hall the Black Keys take the stage to the strains of Johnny Jenkins’ swampboot kickin’ “Leavin’ Trunk” and rip into “thickfreakness” and a thousand fans do the duck and cover like it was an air raid, and then “Set You Free” clears the air and makes my eyes mist up like some kinda proud pappy when he hears his boy’s pinewood car won the derby. Dig the Keys’ rollicking roll, PC’s long loping arms windmilling and DA about splitting his pants as he leaps through the hole in the air his buzzbuster power chord has just made. Uncle Ralph comes out with his a saxophone the size of a gorilla and they rip up the Sonics’ “Have Love Will Travel” and sound reigns like confetti on the kids.

Confessionally speaking, I wasn’t a Sleater-Kinney fan before this tour but seeing ‘em live they knock my disbelieving dangle in the dirt, I mean night in night out they’re putting on some of the hardest keep-on-burning rock shows I’ve ever seen. It’s a hell of a thing to feel the unified energy surging through the room. Carrie Brownstein’s hair is lustrous brown, she wears boot cut jeans and a silky black blouse that closes like a kerchief at her throat and pivots on her feet like superballs and sings in a yip-yip code that everybody listening knows. Corin Tucker has on a pretty dress and stockings and her hair is like fall foliage at its auburn peak, her eyes are a blue million bottles, and she plays her guitar hard and the kids shake their tails for peace and love and Janet, well, the rush of rock stops for a sec and Janet takes the mic and says: “A three legged dog walks into a bar and says, I’m lookin’ for the man who shot mah paw!” and then they storm back into another one, shit I didn’t know they had songs like this, the music darts this way, reels back, lays low, rises up, and then all three of ‘em are singing chanting it’s a unison mantra: “Don’t pull me down, I’m not falling!” and I turn to Pat Kearney (Sleater-Kinney merch guy) and get out my money and waving my hand at Sleater-Kinney’s 6 full-length CDs on the table say, “Gimme whichever one this song is on!” and Pat just gives me his sloe gin grin and says, “It’s a new song. I think it’s only the second time they’ve ever played it.”

After the show it’s late, the traveling bands are sitting in the corridor outside the dressing rooms downstairs, everyone’s there except for Janet, and DA is fretting that his amp is busted, because although he’d bought a new flight case for it, it got banged around on the plane flight out and something’s wrong with it and he and Nick (Sleater-Kinney sound guy) and Mark (S-K trail boss) are discussing the problem and DA says, “I fiddled with the tubes and nothing happened” and Nick says, “It had almost no frequency response” and Mark says, “It stopped being microphonic and got really mid-rangey” and then Janet walks down the stairs and everyone turns.

“Patrick, is your ass sweaty right now?” Janet says.

“Really sweaty,” PC says.

“Mine too.”

“It really sucks.”

Tuesday, February 4, 2003

Last night, as the men dithered in technical amp babble, Janet took control of the situation, grabbed a phone book and looked up a repair shop. So it is that today we pull up to a shop with the marvelous name Guitronics on 9th Street. DA unloads his amp and wheels it into the shop. The place is wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling tubes, wires, screws, equipment in various stages of dis- and re-assembly. The guy manning the shop has long stringy gray hair, a ringer for Jimmie Dale Gilmore in The Big Lebowski. He looks us up and down. “Any of you vote for Bush?”

“No.”

“No.”

“Nope.”

Jimmie Dale’s criteria for taking the job thus met, PC and I leave DA behind to supervise, and as we’re walking to the van we see a flyer stapled to a phone pole: “Dermacolor Parademical Camouflage Class — A comprehensive workshop with step-by-step instruction on corrective methods of covering scars, port wine stains, tattoos, birthmarks, etc.”

“Port wine stains are the new tattoos,” I say. PC nods in agreement, lighting a Camel light.

“We need to add port wine to our rider,” he says.

We get in the van. “A couple years ago I was going to get a tattoo — a photo realistic depiction of me fighting a robot,” PC says, “where like, the robot’s stepping on my foot but I’ve got him by the throat. I changed my mind the night before I was going to get it.”

With time to spend however we like, we drive to 826 Valencia, the Bay Area’s Only Independent Pirate Supply Store. It’s no joke. Although stocked with quality maps, hooks, lanyard ropes and finely crafted peglegs, the place is not doing booming business even in this port city. There’s a back room that’s a resource center for kids that want help with reading or writing or studying for tests. All in all, 826 Valencia is doing much to revitalize public perception of pirates. PC and I are drawn to a red velvet curtain hanging in a corner of the store. We duck beneath it and find ourselves in a small dark alcove with five old theatre seats set up before a lit-from-within tank filled with tropical fish. The undisputed king of the aquarium is a porcupine pufferfish named Karl, swimming righteously through the brilliant water, much to the chagrin of a scowling tiger-striped angelfish hiding in the corners. A royal blue flat fish with smoochy yellow lips paddles around obliviously. From under the coral shoots a black and gold fish like a feather boa so long that it keeps unraveling and unraveling but its tail end never emerges from beneath the rock. We watch the fish for half an hour and walk out into warm San Frantastic sunshine, our spirits immeasurably uplifted.

That evening we pile into the van and head up for night two at the Great American Music Hall. With Quincy Jones’ “Blues For Mr. Tibbs” on the stereo, everything is cool, except…everywhere we look we see chefs, dressed in white chef outfits, floppy chefs hats and all, fidgeting on streetcorners and dashing manically empty-handed down the street. This goes on for a half dozen blocks, more and more chefs until DA cries, “Why are there so many chefs in the street!”

“They’re trying to get tickets for the gig,” PC says, “because tonight it’s really going to be cooking.”

And cook like heck it does. The Keys stomp into “The Breaks” as DA in his old world wooly voice sings so soulfully the opening lines “Back in the day/ we were eye to eye…” and everyone’s into it and somewhere in the middle of “Do The Rump” he throws in the riff from Otis Redding & Carla Thomas’s “Tramp” and PC plays that beat funky as brontosaurus teeth and people are clapping and dancing.

Sleater-Kinney are great. Instead of “Fortunate Son” they cover the Clash’s “Tommy Gun” (“I see all the innocents, the human sacrifice, and if death comes cheap then the same goes for life…”) and it’s righteous and then they dive into a long instrumental jam, some of the best spontaneously combustible razor’s edge out-of-our-heads in control fancy free telepathic playing I’ve ever seen or heard, and they steer it together for ten minutes and ending go right into “Dig Me Out” and everyone goes nuts. Triple exclamation point hot rock for real.
Janet’s mid-set joke tonight: “A man walks into a psychiatrist’s office wearing nothing but a pair of shorts made of saran wrap. The psychiatrists says, ‘I can clearly see yer nuts!’”

After the show, the traveling teams reconnoiter in the hallway and Sleater-Kinney are talking about their best inner-band fights ever.

Carrie looks at Corin. “What about the time we were going from London to Paris and you gave me and Janet the silent treatment for the entire 11 hour drive through the Chunnel!”

PC leans over to me and whispers, “New band name: The Chunnels.”

DA appears from upstairs. “Hey Janet, I like your jacket,” he says. Janet’s wearing a black Nehru jacket with red piping. “I’m getting a strong Sgt. Pepper vibe.”

Janet takes this in stride.

PC, a cigarette dangling from his lip, says, “I’m getting a strong Murphy Brown vibe.”

Janet lets that slide.

Wednesday February 5, 2003

After soundcheck everyone meets in the parking lot and we all kick the soccer ball around in that magic hour as the sky turns red in the gloaming and though DA is obviously a super soccer stud, Carrie Brownstein has some slick moves too. Corin and PC kick with their toes straight on like dorks. Finally PC picks up the ball to give it a big punt but it comes off the side of his foot and sails way up onto the roof of the theater.

I find Stan, the theater maintenance man. “Hey Stan, we kicked our ball on the roof, any chance of getting it down.”

“Not without a long ladder.”

So we all go inside, it was time to quit anyway. There’s still a bit more setting up to do, a banged-up folding metal chair is cleared away from the standing area down by the stage. Pat Kearny and I have to set up the merch tables in the lobby which sucks cos we won’t be able to watch the show, but it works out pretty good for Pat Kearny because there’s a great concession stand in the lobby operated by a dowdy lady with a moustache, puffy eyes and her gray bun in a hair net who makes the most delicious hot chocolate ever for a dollar and if my tally is correct, Pat drinks five chocolates over the course of the night. At one point before the show Corin comes over to help sell merch and she’s bouncing her cute baby boy in her arms.

PC walks over and says, “Sleater kiddy!”

“SLUTTY KIDDY!” Corin replies.

I look behind me where there’s a poster on the wall from the night before:

SACRAMENTO’S OWN SUPREME PRO WRESTLING!
The First Time Ever In NorCal!
Japanese Death Match — Brother vs. Brother
As The Big Ugly takes on Bulldog Raymond!!

Whichever brother got tagged with that banged-up folding chair is still hurting.

Pat Kearny and I have to set up the merch tables in the lobby which sucks cos we won’t be able to watch the show, but it works out pretty good for Pat Kearny because there’s a great concession stand in the lobby operated by a dowdy lady with a moustache, puffy eyes and her gray bun in a hairnet who makes the most delicious hot chocolate ever for a dollar and if my tally is correct, Pat drinks five chocolates over the course of the night.

Late in Sleater-Kinney’s set, DA comes and takes over at the merch table. I run around until I find PC smoking cigarettes and talking on his cel phone in this weird junk garden behind the theater.

“Hey man, let’s smoke some dope!”

“You know I don’t do that, Peter.”

“Peerpressurepeerpressurepeerpressure…” I spark a little roller, what my Chi-town buddy Lil’ Jimmy calls a “brain needle” and PC tokes obligingly. Then we crawl out onto the stage and hide behind Corin’s amp just as Sleater-Kinney starts their instrumental freakout and we’re crouching right next to Janet’s drums and whew.
After the show we’re in Sleater-Kinney’s dressing room raiding their deli tray.

“Your drumming really blew my mind tonight, Janet,” PC says.

Janet looks skeptical. “Were you stoned?”

PC stammers. Janet looks at me. I’m grinning. Janet points at me. “You can handle your pot.” She points at PC. “You can’t.”

“Listen, Janet,” PC begins, digging his own hole, “your drumrolls were incredible. It was like…like when you’re watching the propeller of an airplane and it starts going faster and faster” — PC starts air drumming super speedy drum rolls — “and then it goes so fast it looks like it’s going slow motion in reverse, you know?” PC mimes accordingly. Janet rolls her eyes, but she’s laughing.

“So,” Janet says, “what’re we doing now?”

Corin has left to do family stuff and Carrie has disappeared to do secret underground girl business.

DA comes over. “What’s going on?”

“Follow me. We’re going to a bar.”

PC and I arrive after the others. Everyone is in the back of the bar, playing pool. I watch Janet pocket three nice shots in a row.

DA walks over to fill us in on what we missed. “So we walk into the bar. Janet does a shot of Jagermeister, walks over, picks up a pool cue and runs some fools right off the table. Amazing.”

PC and I get pints of Corona and squidge in lots of lemon. We drink them down quickly. We get another round, and pound ‘em down. PC morphs into his alter ego Buzz Lightbeer. His lower lip begins flapping excitedly.

“The whole thing about rotweilers is how big their head is,” he says, “because that determines how big their jaw is.”

Beyond the pool tables the bar has a back room, separated by a door and soundproof glass. Inside a group of eight or ten middle-aged men and women are playing cards. I walk inside.

“Must be real boring out there,” a man snorts.

I try to make like a wallflower but my presence is not wanted. Very surreptitiously, I take out my Bell & Howell and make a photograph. The clicking of the shutter never sounded so loud.

“What did you just do?” a woman snaps.

“I took a photograph.” Lamely, I show them the camera.

“Why?”

“He’s looking at my cards!” yells the snorting man.

“No offense intended,” I say, and get out of there quick.

Thursday February 6, 2003

“He’s getting into open G, you hear that Pete?” DA is riding shotgun for a change. We’re making good time on our way from San Francisco to LA, listening to a beautiful raw live recording of RL Burnside from 1973.

“Hey that reminds me. Last night I was watching you tune up between songs and you did it in like two second flats and just blew right into “Busted”, it was amazing!”

“The first time I ever played in front of a crowd was on a Tuesday night at the Northside Lounge in Akron. This is about three years ago. I had been taking guitar lessons from this guy and he was playing there. He knew I knew a bunch of old songs so he invited me to come up and play. I got on stage and my ears shut off, I was sweating like crazy, I was completely terrified. It took me ten minutes to tune up.” He laughs.

“Did you ever see Junior Kimbrough play?”

“I drove down to Mississippi three times to see him but he was sick each time. But I went to Junior’s Juke Joint in Holly Springs and drank some corn liquor and saw his son play. I remember a poster on the wall, a crude Pinocchio drawing that said Keep You Nose Out Of Other People’s Business. I’m glad I got to go before it burned down.”

“How old were you when you went?”

“18.”

We stop for coffee in a grubby truck stop. The coffee is terrible.

“This coffee tastes like a musty basement,” PC says. “My back hurts.”

“You need to take posture lessons from Max Weinberg,” DA tells him.

“How is it possible for coffee to be this bad?” I ask.

“People from generations before us drank bad coffee,” PC says. “That’s why there’s bad coffee now, even though it’s easy to make good coffee. If we took today’s coffee back 50 years, those people we leap ahead 75 years, especially if you brought them some of today’s pot.”

Friday February 7, 2003

It’s night number one at the Henry Fonda Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. The doors haven’t opened yet. The Black Keys are onstage soundchecking “Set You Free.”

“It sounds pretty cranked,” the Theater sound guy says.

“It’s always pretty cranked,” DA replies.

“You guy remind me of Blue Cheer,” says the sound guy.

“Good,” says DA.

Before the show, we’re drinking Pabst in The Black Keys’ dressing room.

Through the wall we can hear Sleater-Kinney doing their vocal warm-ups. They’re singing Temple Of The Dog’s big hit in three part harmony: “I don’t miiiind stealing bread, from the mouths of decadence…” This is perhaps in preparation for their upcoming arena tour opening for Pearl Jam (fact!).

Because the merch table is out in the lobby, I miss most of the show. But it works out pretty well because I’ve invited lots of friends tonight, most of whom I haven’t seen in years, and they keep bringing me beers and chatting. Then there’s the burly lumberjack with spider angina splayed across his nose who’s the first one in line for a Black Keys CD once the doors open.

“I saw these guys play at the Ale House in Upland last year,” he screams. “They’re awwwwesome!” DA has told me repeatedly that the Upland show was the worst Black Keys show ever. The lesson being that awesome is in the ear of the beholder.

Saturday February 8, 2003

For three dollars you can buy a packet of four full-color Sleater-Kinney pins. One Carrie, one Corin, one Janet, and one with the band name and koala logo. On the individual pins, each lady is cradling an actual koala. The photos were taken at a nature park in Brisbane, Australian. At one point I ask Janet what the koala was like while she was holding it. “Mellow, gentle, and slow,” she says, turning her head in an evocation of koala-like calm. The pins are big sellers. Sometimes someone will come up to the merch table and say “Can I buy just a Carrie pin?” “No, they come in a pack,” Pat Kearney will explain. “But if you wanted to buy 50 of the Carrie pin, maybe we could work something out.” This inevitably sends the fan’s mind a-reeling.

Night two at the Fonda Theater and the fire marshal is on the march, concerned that the merch table might impede crowd flow should the need to flee arise. So we move the merch table into the main room which is actually much better because we’ll get to watch the show. The Black Keys are due to go on in a couple minutes. PC, wearing a white t-shirt with AKRON in green across the front, runs over looking out of breath. “I spent all afternoon doing paralegal work for Robert Shapiro,” he says. “The Spector case.”

“I thought you were at an outdoor barbecue.”

He puts his hand on my shoulder. “Drinking beer during the day is like running a 5K,” he says, gives me a hug and dashes toward the stage.

The house is full but the crowd’s energy is at half mast — that’s Hollywood ennui for ya. But on stage the fellas saddle up side by side, flip the safety switch off, PC’s tom-toms rumble thunder and lightning cracks as DA’s thumb and pointer finger leap across the electrified wires of his Telecaster (“A tank built from two slabs of wood” he calls it) as they sock into new song “No Trust” and DA’s soul-o moaning “She want to get out of the car, in the middle of the road, her screamin’ and hollerin’, it’s getting mighty old…”

During S-K’s set, Janet starts to tell her joke: “So the Pope is in LA, and he’s driving down La Cienega in his Popemobile when it breaks down…” I’m so transfixed by the sight of two guys standing at the back, one of whom is translating the joke into sign language in real time for the other, that I miss the punch line.
Sleater-Kinney spike into “Little Babies” a song with a classic doo-wop singalong chorus and the legions chant “dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum yeah!” and Corin rhymes “potato” and “table” and Carrie put her foot up on the monitor nodding her head firing off short sharp guitar shards, she’s a casual empress of true school cool.

After the show, we’re down in the dressing room. PC’s dad Jim, white as a sheet with walking pneumonia, is out from Akron to see the big Hollywood show. PC is telling his dad about how that morning some record label people took the Black Keys to a Haitian restaurant in Pasadena where they were served goat.

“I don’t want to eat anything that eats tin cans,” PC says. “Not for breakfast anyway.”

Jim is looking at a glossy postcard of the cover artwork of the new Black Keys album thickfreakness. It depicts a slick hand dipping fingers into a tin of hair grease. Where the logo of a brand name hair grease used to be, the word thickfreakeness has been tipped in.

“You might get sued for this,” Jim says.

“We’re not going to get sued, we’re going to get sponsored!”

“Once you get sponsored, I want you to do something about your hair,” Jim says, smiling and putting his arm around his son.

I lock up the van and head back inside but it seems everyone has disappeared. I spot Pat Kearney trotting up the stairs. He motions for me to follow and soon we’re up on the roof at a patio bar. There’s a balmy breeze blowing and the hip set are sipping beer from bottles and chatting. A wave of disaffection runs through me.
A hand on my shoulder. It’s PC. “Hey Peter! You doing okay?” The young drummer, often a goofball, is always a gentleman.

“Yeah I’m alright.”

“Hey, I found out that Wesley Snipes is in a White Stripes cover band called the Wesley Stripes!” PC says and soon we’re goofing on the roof like a couple canned hams.

We spot Janet and DA standing on the perimeter of the crowd looking out on the LA skyline. We walk over. Janet is pointing to a tall building just a few blocks south.

“That was the Motown building when Motown moved from Detroit to LA. My dad was a lawyer for Motown and he was friends with Marvin Gaye’s manager and once when I was little I got to ride in the back of Marvin Gaye’s Cadillac.”

“Wow, what was Marvin Gaye’s Cadillac like?” asks DA.

“Like butter.”

We catch our flight in the morning at LAX and touch down in freezing Cleveland as night falls. The Black Keys and I say our goodbyes, and as Porky Pig once stuttered, that’s all folks. The fellas will have a few days rest at home before they head back out to do another week with Sleater-Kinney on the East Coast and up into Canada. My presence is not necessary for that leg of the tour; PC will be driving his own van. And yet when Lil’ Jimmy from Chi-town calls me the next day and says he’s driving to New York City to see his girlfriend for Valentine’s Day and if I’m interested in hitching a ride to the Apple, well, he’ll be happy to cruise through Cleveland and pick me up…. I check the itinerary. The tour will pulling into New York to rock the Roseland on Saturday.

Saturday February 15, 2003

AXIS OF WEASEL. That’s the front page headline of the day’s New York Post above a photo of the United Nations assembly with Kofi Annan flanked by the UN representatives from France and Germany. The heads of the French and German men have been replaced with the faces of slimy weasels. In Photoshop, under God.
This is the day of the rally against an unjust war on Iraq, here in New York City and in London, Paris, Berlin and across the world. We start walking from the East Village uptown towards the UN but when we get closer to midtown, the pedestrian traffic flow is being channeled by barricades and police in riot gear. Up ahead, there are more mounted policemen in the street, whipping around in circles on their horses in a very intimidating attempt to discourage people from rushing into the street. A middle aged man steps towards the line of police and announces “There will be no coffee, there will be no donuts! More money for schools, no money for donuts!”
Three girls in their late teens squeeze past me carrying bongo drums. One of them holds a sign that says BONGOS OVER BAGHDAD.

Six months ago the Black Keys were playing in front of 20 people at Cleveland‘s Beachland Tavern. Tonight they’re in front of 3,000. And they rock the show. Their sound fills the hall and heats up its walls and people clap and whoop. Backstage in the dressing room I give the guys hugs and major congratulations. “That felt pretty good!” DA says. PC stands next to him nodding. Everyone relaxes. Matthew Johnson from Fat Possum, the Black Key’s record label, holds court with a rambling mumbling monologue about why Lynyrd Skynyrd were the greatest. “And blahblahblah,” Matthew says when he realizes he sounds like a kook.

I go back downstairs. Sleater-Kinney are on and they’re on. Did you think they wouldn’t be? This might be the biggest show they’ve ever headlined. Girls around me are singing their hearts out, singing along to every song. The sense of unity that was so tenuous at the rally is here in this hall tonight. “C’mon shake your tail for peace and love!” Corin sings, and it’s not some soft-pedaled invitation, it’s a raucous and joyous exhortation and there’s a sense of communion and community in it, and we are free to dance or sing along without fear of getting a macho jock’s elbow in the schnozz or a cop’s blackjack in the face.

Pat Kearny is there bopping and singing along. There’s a young woman in a wheelchair and a young man standing next to her. We’re maybe thirty feet from the corner of the stage in front of Corin.

“How many of you went to the rally today?” Corin asks. “Now I want you all to be aware when you go home tonight, if you’re going to be spending the night with someone. Because when there was the WTO protest in Seattle, well, I know there were a lot of babies born nine months to the day afterward!”

She stops and looks at her bandmates. Carrie and Janet are staring at her. Corin laughs. “They always get nervous when I say something! Here’s a song that means a lot right now.” Janet counts it off and Carrie twangs the lick and Corin’s voice soars in…

“Some folks are born, made to wave the flag
ooh they’re red white and blue…
And when the band plays ‘Hail To The Chief’
they point the cannon at you!”

The chorus comes and the band and the crowd sing it together 3000 strong:

“But it ain’t me, it aint me, I ain’t no senator’s son…
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one!”

And the young man in front of me takes the young lady by the hand, lifts her up out of her wheelchair, and they dance.

4 thoughts on “On the Road With The Black Keys and Sleater-Kinney in 2003 — by Peter Relic, with photos by Melanie Pullen

  1. Pingback: Two Key Historical Articles About The Black Keys « The Black Keys Fan Lounge

  2. Pingback: Two Key Historical Articles About The Black Keys | The Black Keys Fan Lounge

  3. Pingback: 25 Facts You Didn't Know About the Black Keys

  4. Pingback: 25 Facts You Didn't Know About the Black Keys

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