As Nashville's scuzziest, smokiest, most ramshackle rock 'n' roll roadhouse, Springwater Supper Club is where many a band plays its first or second show after moving to Music City. In June — nearly two years after relocating to Nashville from the Rust Belt confines of Akron, Ohio — internationally renowned trad-rock superstars The Black Keys shot a video for their song "Little Black Submarines" at the lovably dilapidated dive.
The clip's Instagram-ready, pseudo-vintage atmosphere hinges entirely on the club's antiquated character. Opening frames feature sights familiar to any slummin'-it local barfly who's ever kicked back a cold one at the club: the dirt lot behind the building, the cracked sidewalk, the '70s-style bubble lettering that spells out the venue's name next to the little black front door, a nicotine-stained American flag in the narrow entrance and, lest you forget this is Tennessee, a crude paper sign bearing a circle-backslash over a pistol and the words "NO GUNS ALLOWED."
As Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach starts crooning, his bearded silhouette appears in the glow of a single shining light, projecting his shadow over the black-painted plywood and the gold and silver tinsel strands over the perimeter of the performance alcove. On the foot-high stage, sweat saturates Auerbach and his Keys cohorts' hair, drips from their faces and seeps through their clothes — they're dead ringers for a local garden-variety gaggle of scruffy indie-rock up-and-comers you might see grinding through a set on a Friday night.
After spending the better part of a decade building indie cred, relentlessly releasing a streak of critically acclaimed scuzz-blues records and crisscrossing the globe with Black Flag-esque voraciousness, The Black Keys moved to Music City in the fall of 2010. This was in the midst of a mainstream breakthrough, kindled by the success of their platinum-selling, multi-Grammy-garnering crossover LP Brothers. The band doubled down on that success with the winter 2011 release of El Camino, their seventh long-player and first as Nashvillians.
In reality, even in Music City, the Springwater is a far cry from the universe that the Keys actually exist in. This week, they play their first proper hometown headlining show in Nashville at a sold-out Bridgestone Arena. The hometown homecoming lands on the last leg of a 129-date worldwide arena jaunt — the band's first tour in such cavernous confines — that kicked off in January 2012. By the looks of the tour's set list, the Keys are running at full-speed on the arena-rock hamster wheel. Last week's leg nine kickoff boasted 19 (out of 21) of the same songs they performed at the U.S. tour-opener in Cincinnati on March 2, 2012, and in roughly the same order. But spontaneity has never really been The Black Keys' bag.
Observing their slow-and-steady upward trajectory, it seems as though the duo's bootstrap strategy for unlikely superstardom (especially considering their gangly looks and scuzzy sound) was simple: Be ubiquitous. From the cheap seats, it appears as if the band has taken every opportunity to expose themselves: jumping on any tour they were offered, granting almost every interview request and, once they realized they could skirt the stigma of being branded corporate sellouts, cashing in on a seemingly incalculable host of TV, film, video-game and commercial licensing opportunities, making them one of, if not the most, prolifically licensed bands in the world.
Last year, a Pizza Hut commercial started running that boasted a familiar stomping shuffle, chugging blues progression and a super-fuzzed-out, soaring guitar lead. The spot ends just as a raspy, bluesy vocal comes howling through the TV speakers. Viewers familiar with the band's latest rock-radio staple "Gold on the Ceiling" did a double take. To be sure, the song in the commercial boasts The Black Keys sound. But it's not The Black Keys. So the band sued Pizza Hut, along with Home Depot — the latter similarly used a Keys knockoff in a commercial. And with that, it was clear: The Black Keys' general aesthetic had become a brand unto itself.
There are unprecedented aspects of the duo's breakthrough. Unlike their colleagues in the small club of contemporary arena rockers — Kings of Leon and Coldplay, for instance — The Black Keys crossed over without ever having that signature hit or homerun series. Their highest charting single (El Camino's "Lonely Boy") peaked at No. 64 on Billboard's Hot 100, while the album itself debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 10 albums chart.
Perhaps that's why, in spite of their naked careerism and the persistence that's made them a household name, the band has kept their "cool" factor and maintained a firm toehold in the indie world: They've maintained their identity while their degree of success slowly climbed, roping in radio listeners while, like frogs in a Crock-Pot, the hipster indie set stayed put. The astounding thing is, Black Keys' Dangermouse-produced-and-co-written singles like "Lonely Boy," "Tighten Up" and "Howlin' for You" are so good, and straddle the line between traditional composition and contemporary production so well, whether or not the band's music is soul-bearing art or careerist artifice is irrelevant.
Legendary Oklahoma freak-rock flag bearers The Flaming Lips open, touting a heady new album — The Terror — and a brand-spankin'-new, grotesquely psychedelic disco stage show.