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Now an arena act, the Black Keys retain that garage-band vibe

Dan Auerbach (pictured) Patrick Carney Black Keys perform last week MadisSquare Garden New York. | Evan Agostini~AP

Dan Auerbach (pictured) and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys perform last week at Madison Square Garden in New York. | Evan Agostini~AP

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Updated: April 22, 2012 8:16AM

The Black Keys have climbed pop’s highest heights with its most rudimentary tools. In the decade since the blues-rock duo’s debut, guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have become a million-selling arena act powered only by riffs and rhythm.

Lashing gutbucket blues to a sleek electric engine is an approach as old as rock itself, but in a 90-minute set Monday night at a sold-out United Center, the band proved worthy heirs to the tradition. Auerbach and Carney’s elemental sound was so bracing, and their delivery so undaunted, that they transformed the most antiseptic of venues into the world’s biggest roadhouse.

The Black Keys last played Chicago on New Year’s Day a year ago at the much smaller Aragon. Since then, the band’s 2010 album “Brothers” won three Grammys, and its new disc, “El Camino,” debuted in December at No. 2.

But all that quantum leap really meant was a wider stage, looming video screens and a far bigger crowd. More striking was how little the band’s fundamental dynamics have changed since the Black Keys were born in a basement in Akron, Ohio. Though aided on this tour by sidemen John Wood on keyboards and guitars, and Gus Seyffert on bass, onstage the band’s core duo remained its pounding heart.

Looking workmanlike with a leather jacket, jeans and a close-cropped beard, Auerbach was a no-frills front man and a self-effacing guitar hero. Bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet, his playing was percussive and rangy, coaxing sounds from the blatting fuzz of “Next Girl” to the wounded-panther screams of “Your Touch” and even a rippling, chattering West African turn on “Girl Is on My Mind.” And he was concise, never lingering over a solo or letting the songs go slack.

Even in fervent testimonials like “Tighten Up,” Auerbach’s singing was confident, loose and free of the affected nasal pinch too many vocalists think is a proxy for soul. While his stage patter was nearly nonexistent, that left the focus on the songs. More than once, he paused just long enough to say, “Come on, let’s keep it rolling.”

Carney too powered straight ahead. In thick, black-rimmed glasses and a flop of dark hair, he walloped concussive blasts on his toms or urgently splashed his cymbals, all with a minimum of wasted motion. He seemed to bend only at his elbows and knees, as if balancing a bucket of water between his hunched shoulders and determined not to spill a drop.

Behind them, Seyffert and Wood added high harmonies (most notable on “Dead and Gone”), eerie keys (“Strange Times”) and funeral-parlor organ (the dim, brooding “Chop and Change”). They stepped away mid-set while Auerbach and Carney played four cuts as a twosome, then again for the night’s last encore, an authoritative tear through “I Got Mine.” By then it was clear that while the Black Keys have graduated to playing arenas, the band’s spirit is still squarely in the garage.

Anders Smith Lindall is a free-lance writer and critic.

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