Show Review: Broken Bells with The Morning Benders at The Regency Ballroom, 5/21/10

by Matthew Blake on May 23, 2010

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Broken Bells are to be taken seriously

Long live the super group.  Established producer Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) and his musical pal, James Mercer of The Shins, made their way to the Grand Ballroom in San Francisco Friday night to showcase their new experiment, Broken Bells.  After what seems to have been the season of all star groups such as Them Crooked Vultures and Atoms for Peace, did this long anticipated show live up to all its hype?

Representing  just across the bay in Berkeley, indie-pop group The Morning Benders delivered a well received opening set that drew the then almost capacity crowd to loud applause.   The group has already been on bills with acts such as MGMT, The Kooks, Death Cab for Cutie and We Are Scientists.  In 2008, iTunes nominated their Talking Through Tin Cans album as the best indie/alternative album of the year.  Definitely a group worth checking out.

The anticipation and crowd buzz were in full form as a completely sold out smoke-filled house eagerly awaited the newly formed Broken Bells to take the stage.  Perhaps those in attendance were familiar with the creator’s past works:  Danger Mouse has produced a star studded roster of acts that include such gems as Beck, The Black Keys, MF Doom, and Gorillaz.  He also went on to gain universal fame by teaming up with rapper Cee-Lo to form Gnarls Barkley, resulting in two Grammy awards as well as nine nominations.  Also well known, James Mercer has led The Shins into indie-rock stardom over the last decade.  Together, a duo that collectively deserve much praise, but then again, the audience might have been among a growing population that have been noticing Broken Bells’ self-titled album climb to the top of the charts.  Either way, a lot was to be expected.

The band humbly took the stage and opened with “Vaporize”.  Burton remained on drums for most of the night, as James Mercer handled the lead with his typical Beach Boy-esque style vocals.  The two had a 7-piece band in total, with additional percussion and keyboards all covered.  The sound was incredibly crisp, leaving the listener hardly able to tell the difference between the album and the live performance.

The band rolled through each song on the album; in fact, the show was just over an hour long, but definitely left the audience with a lasting impression.  The set list order differentiated from the album’s track order and was performed in front of a backdrop of rotating psychedelic nature scenes, creating silhouettes of each band member.  Burton ditched the drums for a keyboard and guitar on selected numbers, showing off his multi-instrumental talents.

The band was all business, hardly interacting with the crowd at all until Mercer interrupted during the opening chords of one song to the smiles of his team, “Wait, wait, wait, I messed this one up…I really like this one, so we are going to do it again!”.  Well, if he fails at music, he could always stay in the entertainment industry as an actor.  He has a vague resemblance to Kevin Spacey, a compliment without a doubt, but the crowd however, was focused on the music.  Broken Bells had people’s full attention.  They delivered the goods with people dancing and nodding their heads in approval to each riff.  What works best about this group and what proved true during the performance, is that each song is immensely different from the next.  We are given a tasty variety of synthesizer, keyboard, guitar, strings, and beats packaged together in different moods and different tempos.  The group surprised the audience with a cover of the 60’s anthem “Crimson and Clover”, ending with Mercer breaking silence to claim that San Francisco is one of his favorite cities.  The group left the stage with an enormous chant for their to return.  Burton and Mercer emerged and gave an acoustic intro to “Lullaby”, with the other members returning to pick up the other half of the tune.  The night was closed out with a performance of “October”, leaving the packed venue with smiles on their faces and full satisfaction.

The hype was definitely lived up to.  Fans will be glad to know that both Mercer and Burton have claimed that Broken Bells is not a project, but a permanent band.  With Friday’s performance, we know that they are immune to any genre and just simply do their thing.  Maybe this isn’t the usual super group after all?

Set list:

Vaporize
The High Road
The Ghost Inside
Your Head Is on Fire
Citizen
Trap Doors
Sailing to Nowhere
Crimson & Clover (Cover)
Mongrel Heart
The Mall and the Misery

Encore:

Lullaby
October

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