The Black Keys started out as a guitar-drums duo, and while they’ve taken on auxiliary players as they’ve grown in stature, they’ve remained committed to touring with a lineup as simple as they can get away with. Not so with the Arcs; guitarist Dan Auerbach’s side project has as many drummers as his main band once had members. Add a trio of mariachi-playing women as backup singers and it was clear that the eight-person group that took the Orpheum stage on Saturday has expanded well beyond the simplicity of Auerbach’s younger days.
And yet the Arcs largely drew on the same garage-rock tradition, albeit from a substantially different angle. Where Auerbach’s headline gig leaned heavily on a blues influence from early on, the Arcs warped many of the ingredients of garage rock closer to psychedelic soul. The high, warbly whistle of Leon Michels’s organ pushed “Cold Companion” and “Pistol Made of Bones” into dark corners, and Homer Steinweiss laid down his drumsticks to add fuzztoned bass melodies to “My Mind” and “Put a Flower in Your Pocket.”
The entire set was an extended exploration of minor keys and reverb, so much so that the dreariness of “Nature’s Child” seemed like it may have been exactly the intended effect. Often, and not only in the faded corners of Black Uhuru’s “Sorry for the Man,” the result was essentially just a flattened reggae, ghostly but less spare and rhythmically itchy.
Even so, the drums remained sharp and crisp throughout. Steinweiss and Richard Swift played side by side on a tandem kit, and the two-drum intro to the Gary “U.S.” Bonds cover “I Wanna Holler” built energy and tension that both sliced through the song’s snaky roots-noir and dragged it forward. They were a key reason that, by its later choruses, “The Arc” had picked up enough relentless momentum that it couldn’t be lightened even by dropping a few instruments out.
Auerbach’s focused but sleepy-eyed demeanor, meanwhile, kept him from being an overly demonstrative frontman. Even laying his guitar down to deliver an unencumbered vocal for “My Mind,” he still held something in reserve. The same couldn’t be said for Julie Justine Acosta, Mireya Ramos, and Shae Fiol from opening act Mariachi Flor De Toloache. Pulling double duty by providing background vocals as emotively expansive as “Dark Side of the Moon”-era Pink Floyd, they were the only ones on stage who consistently looked like they were having fun.
With Mariachi Flor De Toloache.
At Orpheum Theatre, SaturdayMarc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.