The Arcs review – Dan Auerbach's soul side charms windy city

Vic Theatre, Chicago
The Black Keys’ frontman brought his new band to Chicago and showed that this late-night soul group is much more than a hobby-turned-side project

When Dan Auerbach turns around in the Arcs he sees two drummers, none of whom are named Patrick Carney.

That is the most obvious difference separating this new band from the Black Keys, the flagship duo that Auerbach founded with drummer Carney almost 15 years ago in Akron, Ohio. That band organically groomed a stadium-sized following based on a love of the mesmerizing trance-blues of outsiders Hound Dog Taylor and Junior Kimbrough and the pop side of the British Invasion.

The blues seeps through the Arcs but not necessarily through Auerbach’s guitar. He is the vocalist in the Black Keys but a committed soul singer in the Arcs. In true Motown/Stax fashion, he pleads, whispers, talk-sings, and at the Vic Theatre on Wednesday, unwraps the microphone chord from its stand, slides to the edge of the stage and drops to his knees. “The one I wanted was far away / Maybe it was just all in my mind,” he sings before wrapping his head in his hands in panicked paranoia.

The Arcs has a bigger, more swirling sound than Auerbach’s primary band, mostly because there are more people onstage. Dual drummers Richard Swift and Homer Steinweiss weren’t a necessity, although Swift doubled on vocals and keyboards. Next to bassist Nick Movshon and guitarist Leon Michels, the standout flavor provided to this band was from three members of Mariachi Flor de Toloache, a Grammy-winning quartet of women from New York City playing original ranchera music.

That group opened the show, and later, three of the four members merged with the Arcs as backup singers and multi-instrumentalists. Through a classical guitar, fiddle, flugelhorn and triple-packed vocal power, the trio inflected color into the music, which often paused mid-song before gaining a stronger headwind. The arrangements of songs like Stay in My Corner allowed for pockets to open up that revealed the band’s dexterity and individual contribution to the groove. This was a late-night soul band first and foremost that directed everything to the dancefloor, whether through slinky instrumental breaks or, due to the break-beats of both drummers and Movshon’s extra-chunky basslines, the buzz of electro-funk.

The stage was strewn with tropical plants and colored in dark yellows and browns that gave the stage a kind of Miami nightclub from decades past feel. Auerbach left the vocal effects out of his sound mix but played it bare in keeping with the band’s straightforward approach. Guitar solos were had, but they were kept to a minimum and with few notes. As a bandleader he kept things loose, rarely interacting directly with other musicians but directing through thrusting himself into the music and sliding his dance shoes in every direction of the floor.

Unlike Broken Bells (The Shins) and the Dead Weather (Jack White), the Arcs feel less like a hobby-turned-side project than a full-formed band that can stand on its own merits without the backstory of the mothership. The only direct reference to the blues was near the end of the show’s 90 minutes when Auerbach revealed Ike and Tina Turner’s It’s Gonna Work Out Fine, which near the end included lines from Back Door Man, written by Chicago Chess Records great Willie Dixon. As Michels riffed on his guitar, Auerbach danced notes on top with his own. The song led to Out of My Mind, the band’s lead single that bounced like a rubberband.


Mark Guarino

The GuardianTramp

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