20 Years Ago: The Black Keys Play Their First Concert
When Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Pat Carney played their first concert on March 20, 2002, they looked out on an audience that had, as Auerbach's dad described it, "a lot of elbow room."
It took place at Cleveland's Beachland Tavern, where the Akron-based duo had set up a show shortly after managing to secure its first record deal with the small Los Angeles label Alive. Run by rock critic Greg Shaw, the company was releasing records by MC5, the Germs and GG Allin, among others, and had signed the Black Keys without ever hearing them perform live.
"We were completely nervous," Auerbach told Rolling Stone during a 2015 documentary film about that first show. "Even though I had played so many gigs before, I was always just playing covers, and it was usually in a place where I was just, like, background music."
Carney had also performed in public with other bands but as a guitarist; he'd never played drums in front of anyone before. Ten years later, Carney confessed that his drumming style has always been a mostly haphazard approach. “I suck at the drums, so it’s terrifying,” he said to Rolling Stone in 2012. “Just trying to keep it together. I see a lot of comments on Twitter and stuff about how ugly I am, how bad I am at the drums, how awkward I look, and I’m, like, yeah, I agree with most of those things."
Still, a sizable portion of that first show's attendees were familiar with the newly formed band. "Half of those people were our friends," Carney told Relix in 2014. Audience members included the duo's parents, who watched as their sons poured everything they had into their debut. "As a parent, your heart breaks," Carney's mother recalled. "They're busting their butt, and we're the only people here."
Fueled by adrenaline, the Black Keys blew through half an hour of scheduled music in about 15 minutes. As Auerbach remembered it, both he and Carney "kind of blacked out" while they were performing. It was only after they finished and headed backstage that they considered how wild the experience had been.
However rambunctious and poorly paced that first performance was, it struck a chord with Beachland Ballroom and Tavern co-owners Mark Leddy and Cindy Barber. They booked the band for another show. "The people that saw them started to fall in love with them one after another," Barber recalled in the Rolling Stone documentary. "And the talk just started to buzz around northeast Ohio: 'You gotta see the Black Keys, you gotta see the Black Keys.'"
The publicity helped when the band's debut album, The Big Come Up, came out just a few months later on May 14, 2002, selling 500 copies in a month — not much compared to major-label acts, but a considerable leap for two unknown guys from Akron.
As Auerbach later noted, there was a "natural connection" between himself and Carney, both onstage and on record. “There’s some sort of code in our brains that was similar enough that helped us do what we do," he said in 2014. "When we first got together, it sounded like music right from the get-go."