By Mark C. Horn The last time the Black Keys played NE Ohio in November of 2009 it was at Musica in Akron as a tribute to artist friend, the late Alfred McMoore. It was also just last year that Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney were working on solo projects and there were rumors of fallout. The duo recovered, putting out a ground-breaking album called Blackroc. But what of the Black Keys? Speed ahead to 2010 and Auerbach and Carney have come home with their best album to date, Brothers, and nine consecutive weeks among the top 35 sellers on the Billboard Top 200 charts. Their native Ohio fans were chomping at the bit to see them live. So Saturday night, Akron’s favorite sons hit Cleveland’s Nautica stage before a sold-out crowd of 5,000-plus. Despite its growing fame and fortune and playing on every major television talk show, the duo played as if they were auditioning for the favor of the crowd. In others words, the Keys worked their asses off; as if they were on the assembly line at one of Akron’s long-gone rubber factories. The show was highlighted by songs from the Black Keys new album, Brothers, recorded almost completely at the infamous Alabama Muscle Shoals Studios. This more refined, soulful Delta Blues-laced album sounded polished on the outdoor venue’s big stage. The band played in front of a backdrop of larger-than-life tire treads on the stage risers and a canvas of clenched black hands shaking in red, paying homage to both their Rubber City roots and to the new album, soulful statement. The Keys opened the night with some oldies from previous releases including classic rock-blues album Thickfreakness. Auerbach jammed, part Hendrix/ part Page, and played with retro riff appeal as Carney blasted his kit relentlessly, much like Bonham. “Busted” came across with Auerbach playing in all his heavy low fuzz finest along with high-pitched licks, which have become one of Auerbach’s trademarks. Carney took center stage on “Chop and Change” where he literally beat his golden Ludwig set to death, but what a way to die. “Stack Shot Billy” was a highlight in terms of sheer volume and spot-on sound for both. The crowd acknowledged the more widely-known “Your Touch” and “10 AM Automatic”, both of which recalled early-day Keys efforts, as the two used their two-man approach with a full sound of buzzsaw guitar and pounding drum drive. It was almost too hard to believe, but halfway through, the duo was joined by accompanying musicians to help fill out the sounds of cuts from Brothers. Auerbach and Carney opened the Brothers portion of the set with “Everlasting Love”, “Next Girl”, “Howling For You” and the first single, “Tighten Up” . The additions of keyboardist Leon Michels and bass player Nick Movshon allowed Auerbach to focus more on his vocals and guitar playing and created a fuller, more powerful sound. The bass complemented the bombast of Carney’s drums, which at times showed great restrained finesse, even playing his ride with a tambourine. The further into the new material the band got, the more appreciative the teeming crowd got. In fact, the audience was so mesmerized by the Keys accompaniment; they would have cheered if the band had played “Whip It”. The Keys ended their regular set with “I Got Mine” and, by the time they had left the stage, there was no doubt that an encore was due. After approximately five minutes, which seemed like eternity for Keys’ fans, the duo re-emerged and knocked out “Too Afraid to Love You”, “Sinister Kid” and “Til I Get My Way.” The only part of the live set they have yet to master is interacting with the crowd sufficiently. The few times Auerbach spoke to the audience it went bananas. Imagine if he had gotten beyond hello and thank you. But that is just not his style. What the Keys do best is play unfettered, funky, rockin’ blues. And on this sweltering night, the crowd and band were on the same page as brothers and sisters simply enjoyed no frills refreshing, cool grooves on a hot night.