Dan Auerbach is an excellent brand builder.
The Black Keys — the Akron, Ohio born blues rock band he leads along with drummer Patrick Carney, has been on hiatus since 2014’s Turn Blue. That’s left Auerbach time to produce artists like noir chanteuse Lana Del Rey, blues synthesist Valerie June and African guitarist Bombino and focus on endeavors like his 2015 psych-rock band The Arcs and last year’s solo album Waiting on a Song. All the while, he’s been building up a roster of his nuevo retro Nashville label Easy Eye Sound, whose motto is “Good Sound Comes Back Around!”
On Saturday, Auerbach brought the Easy Eye Sound Revue to Union Transfer. One Easy Eye artist, Oakland, Calif. garage rock psychobilly band Shannon & the Clams, led by vocalist Shannon Shaw, opened the show. Another, Louisiana soul singer Robert Finley, who released his debut album at age 63 in 2016 and its Auerbach-produced follow up, Goin’ Platinum! in December, joined Auerbach on stage during the headliner’s set at two different points for a total of five songs.
Auerbach plays well with others. He’s a pleasant singer, a rock solid craftsman and a stellar guitarist who always puts the song first. But this Easy Eye tour is all about leading a killer band of musicians who make his resume look puny in comparison. “Who are all the old guys?” was the popular overheard question when he took the stage with a group of veteran silver haired players. They included Pat McLaughlin (who cowrote seven entries on Waiting on a Song) and drummer Gene Chrisman and keyboard player Bobby Wood, both veterans of Memphis’ fabled American Sound Studio, where they played on hits like the Box Tops’ “The Letter,” Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds,” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
But the old guy who stole the show was Finley.
Finley’s entrance was dramatic. A lanky and limber figure in a black cowboy hat, white goatee and shiny tan suit, he’s legally blind and needed to be assisted to the front of the stage, which he took command of on arrival. Like the recently deceased soul singers Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, he has a rough-cut sound that builds from a gospel foundation, and he means to make the most of his late in life chance at stardom.
Auerbach’s own songwriting chops were on impressive display throughout the evening from the gleaming country rock “King of a One Horse Town” to the boppy Traveling Wilburys-worthy “Shine On Me.” He closed with “Goin’ Home,” from his 2009 solo album Keep It Hid, alone on acoustic guitar after the rest of the band had left the stage.
What really distinguished the show, though was Auerbach’s generosity with the spotlight. And without question, it was Finley who shone brightest. His rugged vocals and forthright emotion carried the day, on burners like “Get It While You Can,” a seize-the-day anthem that’s a different song than the classic of the same title by the late great Philadelphia soul singer Howard Tate. But the highlight was “Holy Wine,” a sanctified ballad on which unveiled a spine tingling falsetto wielded with dramatic flair. After bringing the house down, he had a message for the crowd: “Just remember, we gonna be coming up on some Grammys after a while. I’m gonna want one!”