The term “arena rock” is often used as a pejorative toward bands that have allowed their ambition to outgrow their ability, resulting in unfortunate outcomes like concept albums and too-ornate arrangements. But the Akron, Ohio-born Black Keys, who use their relatively minimalist setup as both a generational signifier and a badge of honor, have become unlikely arena-rockers in the 21st century. They’re conventionally known as a guitar-and-drums duo. But their grounding in musical fundamentals and just-occasional-enough nods toward the bogeyman known as “pop” pack a punch, and Sunday at TD Garden they proved their mettle.
In May the Keys — made up of Dan Auerbach on guitar and Patrick Carney on drums — released their eighth album, Turn Blue (Nonesuch). It represented an opening of their sound beyond guitar-and-drums blues-rock, incorporating both straight-up pop confections and expansive psychedelia; the winding “Weight Of Love” is the album’s first track, and it opened Sunday’s much-anticipated encore. The rest of the set, however, tilted more toward tracks like the swaggering “Lonely Boy” and the chewy “Gold On The Ceiling,” both of which appeared on the duo’s post-breakthrough 2011 album “El Camino” — the experiments of “Turn Blue” are certainly worthy of scrutiny, though they aren’t necessarily crowd-pleasers.
But that’s what happens when you reach a certain level of of fame, and Auerbach and Carney (augmented by bassist Richard Swift and keyboardist John Wood) navigated the chasm between stripped-down blues-rock and big-tent arena rock handily, crafting a set list that nodded to the duo’s earliest efforts and their current status as elder statesmen of alternative rock. The cover of Edwyn Collins’s potent ’90s hit “A Girl Like You” underscored this, situating the Keys in a tradition of feisty blokes with larger ambitions (Collins made his name in the cult-beloved indiepop band Orange Juice) while allowing Auerbach to show off his guitar chops on its chunky riff.
Sunday night’s show ended with “Little Black Submarine,” an El Camino track that loudly echoes Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven,” both in form and in function. Comparing the Keys to Robert Plant and company is obviously tempting — each is among the biggest rock bands of its era. But the Keys’ lean nature stands out; the fact that they have been able to become one of the most prominent rock outfits of the 2010s while keeping things simple is not only a rebuke to arena-rock excesses, it’s a testament to their talent.