Dan Auerbach is halfway through his winter tour, sitting in a diner in Baltimore, Maryland. He's got a fever — nothing as extreme as H1N1 or as ridiculous as the boogie-woogie flu, but an annoying low-grade illness that's got him doped up on Advil's over-the-counter flu remedy and a host of nasal decongestants.
"Right now, I'm getting to be lazy, which is both a good and bad thing," Auerbach croaks by phone from this tour stop. "I'm trying to feel better, but that means that everybody else has to pull my weight."
Everybody else. The words have an interesting ring for the 30-year old guitarist, who, after eight years with the Black Keys, the duo he formed with drummer Patrick Carney, is touring with a wealth of performers, including his backing band, Hacienda, and opening acts Justin Townes Earle and Jessica Lea Mayfield.
"When I'm on the road, I feel good when I'm surrounded with really good, honest, genuine people," Auerbach says. "It's a lot like being around family."
Family is key for the Akron, Ohio-born rocker, who wrote and recorded Keep It Hid, his first solo album, with the assistance of his father and uncle.
Auerbach's dad, Charles, accompanied him on a life-changing road trip to Junior Kimbrough's juke joint in Holly Springs, Mississippi, a decade ago, while his uncle James Quine is a living link between Auerbach and the late punk guitar legend Robert Quine. In the studio, Quine served up snarling riffs à la the Stooges' James Williamson on the song "Street Walkin'," while the senior Auerbach penned the stark heartbreaker "Whispered Words (Pretty Lies)."
On the road, Hacienda — a San Antonio band that Auerbach describes as "hugely inspired by Stax Records, old soul records, and old rock-and-roll records, a lot like the Sir Douglas Quintet, a group they never heard" — provides the brooding accompaniment for Auerbach's sound, which soars between folk and blues and 1970s-era hard rock yet never alights anywhere for long.
"Everybody I'm inspired by is dead, for the most part," Auerbach notes, with a dry laugh. "Over the last few years, I feel less akin to those people and more my own person. It doesn't make my love for them any less."
"Those people" include a wealth of Southern talent, ranging from Kimbrough and Sam Cooke to Ike Turner, who inspired and participated in the recording of the Black Keys' last album, Attack & Release, yet died before it was released in early 2008.
"The combination of [producer] Danger Mouse and Ike was so intriguing," Auerbach recalls. "Who in the hell would've thought we'd ever work with those two people, especially combined on one project? We weren't there for Ike's sessions, but there were a couple of songs that he finished electric guitar on and sang on."
More recently, the Black Keys and co-producer Mark Neill traveled to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to make a follow-up to Attack & Release at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where Aretha Franklin recorded "Respect" and "Chain of Fools" and Percy Sledge cut "When a Man Loves a Woman."
The small-town tedium, noted by the Rolling Stones during sessions for Sticky Fingers and captured in the documentary Gimme Shelter, was hardly what Auerbach and Carney expected.
"I have no idea how things got recorded there," Auerbach says. "For the 10 days Patrick and I were in Muscle Shoals, we both wanted to shoot ourselves!" Then he gets serious:
"We went down there in complete seclusion, stayed at the Sam Phillips Marriott in Florence. We like to get out of town, and we just wanted to go someplace that had history. Muscle Shoals Sound Studio really did it for us. We recorded 16 songs in 10 days."
When he rolls into Memphis for his concert at Minglewood Hall on Friday night, Auerbach plans to take his entire contingent to Shangri-La Records and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, where he'll shoehorn in a few more history lessons before it's time for the sound check.
"I love Memphis," says Auerbach, who can discuss the nuances of obscure blues tunes and Stax songs turned rap samples then nimbly shift gears to talk about the merits of contemporary acts like Jay Reatard and Those Darlins.
"The musicians I like [in Memphis] nowadays are so far removed from everything I was originally inspired by," he muses. "I dunno what it is about Memphis. Obviously, it's a mix of South and North and black and white. I dunno what it is, but the grass is always greener."