Review: The Black Keys Go Full Circle, Returning To The Deep North Mississippi Blues That Initially Inspired Them

The Black Keys
Delta Kream
(Nonesuch)
4 1/2 out of 5 stars

The concept of any artist coming “full circle” has become a well-worn music journalist cliché. But in the case of Delta Kream, The Black Keys’ 10th release, it holds true.

It’s no revelation that guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney were initially motivated by the dark, North Mississippi hill country blues, best known through the work of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. The duo’s 2002 debut even included a cover of Kimbrough’s “Do the Romp.” It’s repeated here further cementing the “full circle” concept. They then signed with the scrappy Fat Possum imprint, not coincidently also the home of Kimbrough and others that shared that raw, unfiltered, back country dance blues attack.

Of course the Keys blasted off from there, moving into more pop, hard rock and even experimental areas, signing to a major label and becoming arena headlining stars in the process. But the initial vibe of that raucous, rustic blues remained in their system resulting in this quickly recorded tribute to Kimbrough, Burnside and a few others who shared that gruff blues approach such as John Lee Hooker and Big Joe Williams.

Carney and Auerbach grabbed bassist Eric Deaton and second guitarist Kenny Brown, both closely associated with the originators of this sound, and let fly on 11 covers recorded in two down and dirty sessions totaling about 10 hours at Auerbach’s Nashville Easy Eye Studios. The concept isn’t original, especially since the Rolling Stones did the same thing when they honored their Chicago blues mentors on the surprisingly successful, generally unvarnished Blue & Lonesome in 2016. Regardless, Delta Kream is a loose and rough session that emulates the overall feel of the initial recordings albeit with a bit, but not much, more polish.

The template of latching onto a riff, repeating it for the length of the song and digging deep into the resulting often hypnotic, party groove is consistent here. Lyrics and vocals are secondary to the thick, swampy sonics created by the four players as they weave these licks together with the intensity and sheer love of the music that clearly runs through their veins. Two guitars intertwine then separate for solos constructed on the spot as the rhythm section pulsates and thumps with restrained energy. Each track rumbles and reverberates like a car with bad brakes that might veer off the road at any second… but never does. 

From Kimbrough’s lively “Sad Days Lonely Nights” to Hooker’s “Crawling King Snake” (given a particularly slimy, easy funk reading with Brown’s greasy slide taking center stage) and Burnside’s haunted “Going Down South” sung here in creepy falsetto, the rugged Delta Kream captures the essence of what made this North Mississippi music so distinctive.

While even this stellar lineup can’t truly replicate the dangerous backwoods stomp that injected a shot of adrenaline into the bloodstream of Carney and Auerbach all those years ago, it comes awfully close. And if enough Keys fans are encouraged to explore the originals, this project will have accomplished its mission.

As Carney states in the notes “We grew up learning to play like these guys. It’s the reason the band even exists. We did this album to remind people of what inspired us.” That’s coming full circle in the most authentic sense.      

        

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