"Rock 'n' roll will never die," sang Neil Young in 1979. Lately, though, it seems to be in a coma.
How else to describe the sad state of rock? The Billboard charts are filled with pop acts, rappers and country singers. Even sugary boy-bands have re-emerged. But search for a rock band — the kind that peels the paint off garage walls and leaves ears ringing — and you won't find many.
One of the only exceptions is the Black Keys, the blues-rock duo of Ohio natives Dan Auerbach (guitar, vocals) and Patrick Carney (drums) that headlines at Merriweather Post Pavilion Friday.
After a decade of albums and touring, the Keys' dedication to gritty blues and no-frills rock is finally paying off. In the past 18 months, Auerbach and Carney made the cover of Rolling Stone, they became the rare act to perform on "Saturday Night Live" twice in the same calendar year and, most impressively, they sold out Madison Square Garden and D.C.'s Verizon Center in minutes.
But Carney declines the role of rock's flag-bearer.
"I don't feel any responsibility," he said. "I don't think it's dying. ... Rock 'n' roll is always changing."
That's likely true, but it's the Black Keys' steadfast commitment to the music they love — Carney cites '70s Brit-rockers T. Rex as an influence — that led to the recent surge of success (2010's "Brothers" went platinum while new album "El Camino" was just certified gold).
With the Black Keys graduating to arena status — and one worthy of closing the annual Coachella music festival — they have become one of rock's most important acts.
Touring and word-of-mouth support helped, too. Auerbach and Carney recently relocated to Nashville, Tenn., but they really live on the road, winning over crowds and new fans the old-fashioned way.
"We used to tour without any lights or any of that crap, but now we have to do it," Carney said. "But we're putting on the same exact show we would in front of 100 people."
Small crowds are no longer a concern. Instead, the band's problems stem from other issues, such as allowing commercial uses for its songs.
The Keys are no strangers to the marketing game. "Set You Free," from 2003's "Thickfreakness," introduced them to consumers via a car commercial. Since then, there are more than 300 Black Keys' song placements in TV spots, video games and movies. Saying yes to corporate America wasn't the goal, Carney says, and it was something they grudgingly agreed to as they eked out a living on the road.
"For a long time, we said no," he said. "Then we started to say yes ... because the money was really good. But compared to a live show [now,] the money isn't very good."
The Keys are now much more selective in allowing their songs to be used, according to Carney. Of course, that hasn't stopped companies from finding other ways to use their music.
Carney says the band has lawyers listening now to at least five commercials that feature tracks similar to existing Black Keys songs. He says companies will use Black Keys songs as blueprints for jingles, instructing studio musicians to come up with something close but not exactly the same.
"Pizza Hut has a song just like 'Gold on the Ceiling,'" Carney said of the "El Camino" single. "Izod sunglasses has a song just like 'Howlin' For You.' Home Depot has one for 'Lonely Boy.' Even when you try to take the high road, you end up getting" used.
Carney seems to be relieved that it's not in his hands. He and Auerbach — unlikely friends since high school (Auerbach was a stoned soccer jock while Carney looked and fit the part of social outcast) — are too busy touring to care about much else. He says he'd like to have another album out by March, but there are no details to report.
No matter when the next album comes out, chances are there will be no mistaking who made it. The Black Keys have come this far by trusting the collective gut of its two members and little else, and that's just how Carney likes it.
"We never got involved with a trend that we felt uncomfortable with," he said. "Dan and I have always stayed true to what we really liked."
If you go
The Black Keys perform Friday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Arctic Monkeys will also perform. Gates open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $40-$55. Call 877-435-9849 or go to merriweathermusic.com.