Concert Chronicle

Brian Ahnmark
Back in 2003, I read about this Ohio band in Rolling Stone. They were a two-piece outfit touring with Beck, who happened to be heading to Columbus. I bought tickets – for Beck, if we're being completely honest, although my curiosity was piqued by this mysterious duo.

Then in some cosmic twist of cruelty, there I was at the then-Promowest Pavilion, watching Dashboard Confessional open for Beck.

(Odd personal fun fact: I have seen Dashboard Confessional twice, both at concerts where the opening band I had expected to see did not perform. I am not proud of this.)

I don't know what the hell happened. Really, I didn't think much of my near-miss – that is, until I bought this band's most recent album and was afflicted with immediate ear boner. Blessed by internet stalking skills well-honed in my collegiate years, I soon discovered an opportunity for atonement: The band had a show scheduled at Oberlin College in tiny Oberlin, OH.

I remember calling the listed contact line in an effort to secure tickets. A student answered, working the campus phones (undoubtedly for $5.15 an hour), fielding a call from a hyperactive maniac who acted like a teenage girl bantering with a Ticketmaster rep over the last seats available for an Avril Lavigne show.

“Hello! I'm calling about the concert coming up on December 5! Can I buy two tickets?”
“How do I buy them? Do you take credit cards over the phone? Will you mail the tickets? Is there a will call?”
“Just come to the show.”
“Can't I buy them now? What if the show sells out?”
“Dude, it won't sell out.”
“But what if it does?”
“Dude, trust me. It won't sell out.”

So on a bitter December evening, I drove with my friend Jordan through the winding backcountry of northeastern Ohio for two hours to see a two-piece band from Akron play in the basement club of the Oberlin Student Union for $8 a ticket - $5 with an Oberlin Student ID!

The band was The Black Keys.

We arrived on campus and pondered a minor issue: Neither of us had any idea where the Oberlin Student Union was located. Wandering amongst collegiate-looking buildings, Jordan suddenly held up a hand to request quiet, and that's when we heard it: The unmistakable heartbeat of a bass drum. We followed the rhythm, rats to Patrick Carney's Pied Piper cadence. Then we saw people lugging musical instruments into a building, so we followed them through a door... and stumbled directly upon The Black Keys' soundcheck. No one shooed us away, so we lingered and jammed to “Hard Row” (my favorite) and “Have Love Will Travel” (Jordan's favorite).

The trip was already worth the drive.

Soundcheck concluded, so we headed upstairs to fetch our tickets for the “official” concert. We met a group of four fellas who had driven from Kentucky (!) to see the show; indisputably outdone, we cursed under our collective breath. We had some time to kill, so we ambled the halls studying pictures of past performers. That's when we noticed a couple of other guys doing the same thing. They looked familiar.

My thought process: “Jesus, that guy is tall... aaaaand that would be the drummer of The Black Keys, Patrick Carney. And that would be Dan Auerbach next to him.”

I bungled my way through a nervous introduction to the band, and thank God I don't remember what I said during the brief conversation that followed. Probably something like, “Isn't it super rad that we're walking the hallowed halls where Lewis Black once angrily shouted jokes?” Band and worshipers parted ways (mercifully) and headed into the basement for the show – in “The 'Sco,” presumably short for “The Disco,” presumably short for “Yes, It's Just the Basement of the Oberlin Student Union.”

It was my first experience at an intimate club show, and it was a doozy. Hand-printed concert posters adorned the walls (I stole one). The show started roughly two hours late. There was good bottled beer at dirt-cheap prices (I drank Negro Modelo). The opening band was called The Kristi Yamaguchis (if you aren't already laughing, you don't deserve to understand the brilliance of that band name. I will provide no context). The headlining band set up its own equipment, honest and pure.

I stood beside Dan's mic stand, close enough to taste the sweat – and close enough to be terrified by the felonious assault Patrick bequeathed upon his drumkit. It was the band's first show in months; Dan had dropped an amplifier and broken his foot during a fall European tour. Dan blew up an amp (vengeance, perhaps?) and Patrick busted a bass drum pedal. But the performance was ferocious and concise, with the band ripping through tunes from their first two albums.

After the main set concluded, there was no backstage for the band's retreat; they simply stepped off the side of the stage (in truth just a one-step riser) and waited for the crowd to make some noise for an encore. After the show, Dan and Patrick sat on a staircase at the exit, shaking hands and chatting up fans. It had snowed four inches during the evening's festivities, so we stepped from a sweltering concert hall into a December postcard night.

Fast-forward roughly six years. In August 2010, I was in attendance as The Black Keys sold out the 5,000-capacity LC Pavilion in Columbus. (Until this precise moment, I hadn't even thought about the coincidence that this was the very venue where I was supposed to see them for the first time so many years ago.) Brothers, their most recent album, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts in May and sold 73,000 copies in its first week.

There was a time when I thought of the Keys as “my band,” a guarded secret to share with dear friends. Their ascent has been earned the old-fashioned way; by word-of-mouth, courtesy of borderline obsessive followers such as myself. I feel partly responsible for what has transpired, but a little sad, as well – especially when I see scalpers on craigslist selling Keys tickets for $150 a pop.

But I still carry that Oberlin ticket stub in my wallet to remind me of simpler times, back when eight bucks would get you into a Black Keys show.

$5 with an Oberlin Student ID.