“I’m lookin’ down, when I should be lookin’ up.”
These were some of the first coherent words uttered by Jesco White, the “Dancin’ Outlaw,” following his first tap-dance number while opening for the Black Keys Wednesday night at the Ryman. With the current state of the economy and an election season that seems like it will never end, a very strung-out Jesco’s statement about his stage presence carried an almost prophetic weight when spoken to an audience that has for far too long now been “looking down.”
Before the show started, this tension could be felt. More chatter about the bailout was heard than about the latest obscure indie release, more Obama buttons seen than American Apparel t-shirts. After all, just the night before, the Ryman’s historic pews held a predictably frustrated but surprisingly restrained audience for a live broadcast of the Town Hall Presidential Debate at Belmont University. It was obvious that this audience was there for an upper.
And what an upper they got. Knoxville’s aptly-named Royal Bangs started the show off with a raucous display of nerd-rock perfection, complete with Lite-Brite-wielding amplifiers and eighties-inspired t-shirts that rocked the audience back to simpler times when their biggest worry was whether or not Katie would play Pac-Man with them after school.
Then came Jesco. As if the Royal Bangs didn’t get the nearly-packed house excited enough, the subtle “sole” stylings of the Dancin’ Outlaw from West Virginia got the crowd on their feet and screaming for more. For the sake of context, Jesco White isn’t your average tap-dancer. Born and raised in Appalachia, Jesco has spent the majority of his life on dancing and drugs, as was more than evident in his half-naked but full-hearted performance. Mostly dancing and showing off his impressive physique, Jesco also graced the audience with a few impromptu vocal performances. In what sounded like part of Aerosmith’s “Angel,” Jesco revealed a voice that could easily belong to the alcoholic, slightly speech-impaired lovechild of Johnny Cash and the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. Literally pulled off the stage by his guitarist Jay Hill and wife Norma Jean, Jesco helped the Royal Bangs set the tone for a very memorable night.
By the time the Black Keys took the stage in front of an anxious crowd, the energy in the room alone could have prevented the Great Nashville Gas Crisis of weeks past. Standing in front of a huge inflatable tire reading “Heavy Sole – Black Keys – Akron, Ohio,” Guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney spared no bit of intensity, kicking off the show with the high-energy “Thickfreakness” and dynamically-varied “Girl Is On My Mind.” What really got the crowd going, though, was when Auerbach began furiously pouring the blues-rock chords of one of the duo’s biggest hits, “Set You Free” (featured on the 2003 soundtrack for School of Rock), out of his signature Rickenbacker hollowbody.
Also a high point of the Keys’ set was “Stack Shot Billy,” off 2004’s Rubber Factory. Always a crowd-pleaser, the audience knew what was coming when Auerbach began a bit of swampy blues improvisation before Carney kicked in with one powerful thump of a drum beat. Immediately following “Stack Shot Billy,” Carney and Auerbach launched into another fan favorite, “Busted.” At this point, the crowd was on a lo-fi high and Auerbach joked with the audience, “Now you’re getting too rowdy-let’s slow it down.” As any Black Keys fan knows, “slow” doesn’t really mean slow, and it definitely doesn’t mean quiet. The energy never ceased as the duo blazed through tracks such as “Strange Times” and “Your Touch,” never letting up in their intensity. The Keys ended their set with an extended version of “I Got Mine,” complete with a call-and-response breakdown between drums and guitar that ended the show on what was unbelievably the most explosive note yet. The audience could hardly make it through the encore break, and screamed in collective relief when Auerbach and Carney finally retook the stage. After a three-song encore, the show ended with Rubber Factory’s “Till I Get My Way.” If the Ryman’s reaction to their performance was any indication, I’d say the Keys “got their way” long, long ago.
Upon leaving the show, previous murmurs of healthcare and tax reform were buried underneath hyperbolic exclamations about biting guitar tone and incredible energy. Royal Bangs, Jesco, and Black Keys-you did your jobs tonight. Some may have entered the Ryman looking down, but everybody left your show looking up.