You might be thinking, “Why on earth is there a post about a rock band on a graphic design blog?” This time last week, Akron, Ohio-based rock group The Black Keys performed at Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena to a tightly packed and enthusiastic audience. The current tour kicked off in 2014 to promote their most recent album, “Turn Blue.” While they played many songs from their newest release in addition to classic crowd-pleasers, they also surprised folks with a couple of interesting covers and a pair new support musicians (expanding their renown duo to four for the road).
Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, was the visual design of the performance. Many concertgoers remarked that this was a vast departure from the Keys’ bare-bones shows of the past. The band kicked off their Rochester show in front of a deceptively simple backdrop: a painted stage curtain with grids of four LCD screens on either side. But by the third song, the curtain had been dramatically pulled down, with a flourish, revealing a dozen more screens and a blinding—yet artistic!—array of lights.
Those familiar with the group might have found the (literally) flashy set to be a shocking development. However, for the duration of the concert, the screens mostly showed video of the performers rocking out—often with closeups or angles that one would never see from the house (or the pit). In that sense, the video feed actually enhanced the standard concert experience by providing more-than-meets-the-eye footage: a bird’s eye view of Patrick Carney pounding the drums, or guitarist Dan Auerbach squeezing out the high notes.
The video stream—though obviously digital—was often manipulated in ways that harkened back to the reverberations of old VHS tapes or even the distortions of super-8 footage, occasionally colorized or taking a trippy turn for the surreal. It gave the effect of watching the Keys perform live against the backdrop of their own music video. Combined with a synchronized light show in every imaginable hue, one might think the effect of these 20+ screens would be overwhelming. Yet the design of the set and choreography between video, color, light and sound waves felt absolutely authentic, true to the band’s workaday roots.
Design-wise, The Black Keys have kept things in the family—Carney’s brother, Michael, is the band’s art director and has created all eight of their album covers. Reverberations of his latest cover design for “Turn Blue”—a bright red and blue swirl that is undoubtedly created with the intention of producing color “vibrations”—flickered periodically across the screens as fluorescent animated patterns interspersed with grunge video.
But the mastermind behind their latest set design is unclear. It could be an extension of Michael Carney’s largely print-based work for the duo, or perhaps a set designer who managed to capture the essence not only of the most recent album cover, but of this current iteration of the band itself. Regardless, the concert was an example not only of a designed experience, but also of the evolution of a brand, and an illustration of the ever-expanding roles of design and designers. We are not only designing with PMS colors in two dimensions—we’re also creating experiences that unfold over time and space in pixels, light, and sound.