When the Black Keys plays the Three Rivers Arts Festival at 8 p.m. Friday, drummer Patrick Carney will be within spitting distance of his old school.
"I used to live in Pittsburgh for like six months. I used to go to that pseudo art school Downtown," he says of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, in the fall of '98. "I was getting straight A's, so I knew there was something wrong, because I had 2.0 in high school. So that's why I left. It felt like a joke."
Carney headed back home to go to Akron University, where he reclaimed his normal 2.0, but more importantly reconnected with former schoolmate Dan Auerbach, the kind of guy who was listening to Robert Johnson and Junior Kimbrough when all the other kids were into Limp Bizkit.
They formed the Black Keys, a white-hot blues-rock duo in 2001, and then really broke nationally when they signed to Fat Possum for 2003's "Thickfreakness," which drew natural comparisons to the White Stripes with extra props for sounding less like Zeppelin than a garage-rock Muddy Waters.
The band's early gigs here were at the 31st Street Pub, and then the Black Keys started building its audience with more acclaim and unlikely tours with such superstars as Pearl Jam and Radiohead.
Last summer, the group made its mark here with a crushing opening night slot on the New American Music Union festival on the South Side. That was just after the release of the sixth album, "Attack and Release," a departure for the duo in that it wasn't meant to be a Black Keys album.
Rather, the Keys were approached by producer Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton (of Gnarls Barkley) to write tracks for fallen R&B legend Ike Turner and back him on the record.
"We started working on it and after four months all we heard were like three songs that were pretty rough still," Carney says. "There wasn't much progress being made on Ike's part so we decided to put that on hold and make our record. I don't like sitting there waiting and neither does Dan."
As it turns out, Turner died in December 2007 leaving only a few of those tracks in reasonably finished state.
"We have versions of him singing a couple songs that have never come out -- two of the songs on 'Attack and Release.' They sound awesome, like Screaming Jay Hawkins. [We are] trying to get those released, but I think Brian is hesitant to release it just because Ike passed away and he doesn't want to put out something posthumously. I personally think it's Ike Turner's coolest vocal performance in the past two decades."
The upshot is that it became a Black Keys/Danger Mouse project and working with the producer opened up the Keys' sound a bit into what Rolling Stone called "a psychedelic hybrid of vintage Southern R&B, brutish British Invasion rock and country blues."
"Dan and I have a unique situation," Carney says, "because we're two pieces and we never worked with anyone else. We were both open to having some outside input. The whole idea with this record was to use a bunch of stuff we don't normally use and flesh songs out more. Brian helped that happen and he was a fun guy to be around"
After wrapping up the tour, the duo went right back to work, only separately. Auerbach released "Keep It Hid," an acclaimed solo record that sounds pretty much like the Black Keys.
Why a solo record?
"I have no idea," Carney says. "You'd have to ask him"
Meanwhile, the 29-year-old Carney has kept busy with his label and studio Audio Eagle and with playing bass with close friends in the indie-rock band Drummer. It's a band with four people, and Carney likes the change of pace but says that never would have worked with the Black Keys.
"After our first tour, when the first record came out, we were getting suggestions from a lot of people that we should add somebody. Neither one of us wanted to deal with having to share, I guess. We had worked our [butts] off and whoever would have walked into the situation, it wouldn't have been every pleasant for them 'cause we were 22-year-old brats."
The rewards have been critical raves, a fan base that includes Robert Plant, Billy Gibbons and Thom Yorke, and festival gigs more prestigious than the Three Rivers Arts Festival. Carney had no expectations like this.
"Not at all," he says. "We worked hard on it and we got lucky breaks along the way. I don't know how that works out, but it does. Our first goal was to pay our rent making music and that's pretty much still what our goal was. The first couple tours we were happy if 20 people came out to a show, and ever since then the audiences have gotten a lot bigger, but it always feels good, no matter the size of the audience, when people want to hear your music."
Scott Mervis can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2576. First Published June 4, 2009 4:00 AM