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Of course, by now we all know that the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. Good job, many congrats, great series and all of that. I say this as a Philadelphian who only gives half a hoot about hockey. But as Philadelphians it is mandated that we root for the underdog, especially if the underdog is us (see also: Rocky). And don’t be fooled with this “City of Brotherly Love” nonsense – we sure do enjoy watching dudes pummel the snot out of each other. Wait, isn’t this article about Broken Bells? Can we get to the part about Danger Mouse already? Oh yeah. Well, June 6th was the date of the Broken Bells show and June 6th was also the date of Game Five of the Stanley Cup Finals. I mention this because at times it was hard to tell whether I was at a concert or a sports bar. I had really intended to be at a concert. Mostly, that is what happened.

One would imagine a Broken Bells show to be a relatively jock-free zone and by all appearances it was. Walk into any bar, sports or otherwise, and you’d have to shield your eyes for all of the Flyers orange. But at the show that night I spotted nary a jersey. The Electric Factory is one of those renovated warehouse venues and not a favorite of mine: it’s an open shell of a building with crappy, super-loud acoustics and bar areas lit by IKEA chandeliers (I know this because I considered buying the same model last year). Suddenly, on two of the four (unnecessary) projection screens, the picture switched from a view of the stage to a tight shot of a face-off. This would’ve been a fine and fun idea if the game was on between sets, but the channel was tuned to the playoffs the entire time. And that made me frown on behalf of James Mercer and Danger Mouse. Especially when at random moments a raucous cheer or collective groan perforated the swimmy vibe of “Your Head Is On Fire.” To the particularly enthusiastic dude with the backwards cap and the (ugh) barbed wire bicep tattoo: thanks for almost punching me when you fist-pumped wildly during that first goal. That’s the spirit, but… stop.

Let’s talk about music now, shall we?

Most of the people at Broken Bells cared about seeing Broken Bells, and for good reason. It’s quite an exhilarating combination, Shins front man James Mercer and shy genius Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton). Not since my discovery of chocolate covered gummi bears have I experienced such joy from an ambitiously delicious pairing. But how was this all going to go down live? Burton relied on live instrumentation in place of sampling with this record but even still, the vocabulary of sound involved is on a doctoral level. Turns out the solution is staffing. There were four guitarists (including Mercer), a guy on keyboards/machines/brass and two full drum kits. That’s a lot of opportunity for sound. Burton rotated between the instruments, seated behind the main drum kit for about half of the show and otherwise backing on guitar or soloing on the keyboard.

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Burton has long ago ditched the mouse costume, but it was easy to diagnose his introversion. If he played guitar on a song he simply strapped one on from behind the drum kit and stayed put, sometimes facing the sides of the stage or, even stranger, facing the back. For his synth pieces, he set up a comparatively tiny keyboard next to Mercer and seated himself on a bench of elementary school proportions, knees to chin. It was as if he ate a piece of mushroom from the side that makes one grow tall. I want to say that in a gesture of gentlemanly endearment, he lifted up the tails of his sport jacket before seating himself but that might just be my imagination talking.

The Bells are so atmospheric and the-future-is-now, thanks in large part to Mercer’s heroically fragile vocals. He makes full use of his range from the slick falsetto of “The Ghost Inside” to the deeper registers of “Trap Doors” to the operatic swooning of “Sailing to Nowhere.” The melodies and sounds border on philosophical; meanwhile, the multimedia backdrop has us contemplating matters of Aristotelian and cosmological importance – a graph showing infinitely expanding parabolas, footage of solar flares, the passing starscape as if we are all in a capsule shuttling through outer space. The balance is just right, it’s an active trance.

Broken Bells played every song from their 10 track album along with covers of Tommy James and the Shondells’ legendary “Crimson and Clover” and the Miracles’ Motown favorite “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me.” Despite the distractions most people were supplying handclaps or involuntarily shimmying their shoulders to the beat. The Bells didn’t talk to us much; in fact, I don’t think they even made introductions but that’s just as well, it wasn’t meant to be a chatty show. They ended their set with an extended reprisal of their single “The High Road” and as a rare treat and/or disappointment (since they only had an hour’s worth of material), we were back on the Schuylkill by a decent hour. The night was a weird juxtaposition of cerebral sound and sports talk; alas, the Flyers lost but at least Broken Bells had brought their A game. And that, in my book, is still something to cheer about.

by Stacey Pavlick
[Photos: Charlotte Zoller]
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One Comment

  1. Jenn

    January 15, 2014 at 10:10 am

    I can’t wait for their album release next month. I just heard the track “After The Disco” and it’s pretty sick. https://play.spotify.com/album/0FSewyWQcGXldg7piFwMV3

    Reply

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