Why the Black Keys lead singer assembled a 'bizarre and beautiful' band of senior-citizen musicians

In 2015, American garage rock kings the Black Keys finished a marathon tour of the globe following the release of their Billboard No. 1 2014 LP, Turn Blue. For lead singer and guitar player Dan Auerbach, packed arenas, Grammy nominations and gold records had become everyday aspects of doing business as the Black Keys, but when it came time to plot his next artistic step, big business as usual wasn't where he wanted to go.

Since the last time the Keys performed live, in fall 2015, Auerbach has been a man on a musical mission, diving head-first into projects that bear little resemblance to the sparkling rock spectacle the Black Keys had become. An album and tour dates with a new group he fronted, The Arcs, followed by the recording of a new solo album -- 2017's vintage, polished Waiting on a Song -- with some of his favorite Nashville musicians suggests the 38-year old Ohio native is secure enough to divert his own artistic path wherever his curiosity leads.

"Music means so much to me, I just can't [expletive] around with it anymore, you know what I mean?" Auerbach says.

"The last time the Black Keys toured, we were selling out places like the Staples Center and we had 50 people touring with us, so putting all of that on hold was a big decision, but it's something I needed to do for creativity's sake. I mean, I've learned more in the last year and a half than I had ever before."

The solo record is the result of Auerbach finally being able to "actually settle in" and experience the musical scene in Music City, he says. After eight years of keeping an address there, it was time to meet the neighbors and pick up some different instruments. Not only does selecting many of his favorite players suggest Auerbach is a giddy kid (in maybe the coolest candy store ever), but his age relative to his crew places him squarely in the role of student, regardless of where his name goes on the marquee.

The ever-evolving, insatiable pupil in him wouldn't have it any other way.

"My drummer [Gene Chrisman] is 78 years old, my keyboard player [Bobby Wood] is also 78," Auerbach says. "And I have a 70-year-old playing mandolin, acoustic guitar and singing harmonies with me [Pat McLaughlin], and this band is [expletive] hot. But the audiences on this tour have been young, so it's bizarre and beautiful and it really doesn't have anything to do with age."

"I mean, music is magic, and if you got it, you got it, regardless of age. I'm playing with a bunch of magicians."

Although he gained his fame through fully-plugged-in, blues-based rock music, Auerbach's history goes deep into other sonic terrain. His time away from the Black Keys has been a purposeful trip back in time designed to find firm footing in the present.

"I grew up listening to and playing bluegrass music," he explains. "That's one of the reasons I moved to Nashville and why I have my studio [Easy Eye Sound] near the Station Inn. I was able to find a new beginning just by touching base with my foundation."

His studio jam sessions may be folksy and twangy, but right now on this tour, he's bringing out the kind of good-times rock 'n' roll that rolls the windows down and maniacally pumps its fist. The back-to-basics reset seems to have worked, because plugging-in and cranking it up has once again become something Auerbach can't get enough of, if only to prove that he can still bring the house down with his playing.

"On this specific tour, I've been really getting into the electric guitar again," he says. "I haven't played it that much in the last three years, but I'm having fun with it now. I'm around all these great musicians and I get inspired and it's made me want to step up my game. It's been fun finding new sounds, you know?"

Dan Auerbach performs Feb. 22 at 8 p.m. with Shannon and the Clams at Canton Hall. Details here.

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Dan Auerbach and The Easy Eye Sound Revue / Shannon and the Clams

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Canton Hall

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