Broken Bells at First Avenue, 12/6/10

Broken Bells
December 6, 2010
First Avenue, Minneapolis

If you were not at Broken Bells at First Avenue on Monday night, you missed what was probably one of the tightest rock shows to pass through the venue this year. Seriously. (No, for real. I'm not just saying that to be a jerk.)

What began as an experimental collaboration between Brian Burton (also known as Danger Mouse) and Shins frontman James Mercer has somehow evolved into a sensational and exceptionally well-crafted sound. This is not entirely surprising--producer and multi-instrumentalist Burton has dipped his talented hands into other projects, like producing albums for Gorillaz and Beck, as well as collaborating with Cee-lo Green to form Gnarls Barkley (Burton has also produced both of their albums). Plus, Paste Magazine may have named him Best Producer of the Decade (2000-2009). This is not another one of those one-hit album wonders that we see a little too often one the indie rock front--you know, where a great, young band releases a fresh EP and achieves maddening popularity without the promise of a second delivery. Burton and Mercer have delivered something a little more substantial and satisfying.

This is the first tour for the duo, and to help present their 2010 self-titled debut album in best live form, they are bringing a five-piece troupe to back them up (two guitars, bass, drums, and piano, with smatterings of horn and tambourine). On stage, Burton continually rotates between guitar, piano, and drums, while Mercer keeps to his guitar and the microphone, where he can showcase his wide vocal range; on some songs, like "The Ghost Inside," Mercer goes from a high, borderline falsetto to a sturdy tenor. For those more familiar with Mercer from the Shins, this vocal diversity may seem surprising--but not unwelcome.

Broken Bells at First Avenue, 12/6/10

A background of projected geometric shapes and some psychedelic amorphous forms provided some standard visual stimulation while the guys jammed out, providing filler content for all that between-song banter that Mercer was refusing to subscribe to. Attribute it to personality, perhaps, but part of what makes Broken Bells such an impressive live act is their no-nonsense attitude when it comes to playing. The performance was absolutely seamless. The band transitioned solidly from one song to the next, rolling through the haunting "October" and delivering the melodious and gemlike "Insane Lullaby" with a delicate solemnity as Mercer and Burton began the first chorus quietly before the rest of the band joined in. Then there was the new stuff--the geniusly layered and dynamic "Meyin Fields" and the futuristic "Vaporize"--that just clinched the deal.

The audience was already beyond into it when it seemed for a minute like the band wasn't going to come back for an encore; they did, however, take up the stage once more, with Mercer and Burton walking on alone and delivering a delightful cover of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down." Afterwards, the rest of the ensemble joined the duo, ending the evening with the jam-style "The Mall and the Misery." Nothing could have been more satisfying.

Broken Bells at First Avenue, 12/6/10

Critic's Bias: Besides the part where I think Brian Burton should have his own religious sect?
The Crowd: Packed like sardines and not minding at all.  
Overheard In The Crowd: "You guys are the shit!"
Random Notebook Dump: The opening band, Maps and Atlases, should not go unmentioned--they were really phenomenal. Played well, and had a sound that somehow merged folk and experimental electronica. They were well-liked, too.
For More Photos: See our full slideshow by Steve Cohen.
Setlist: The entirety of their March 2010-released Broken Bells LP, plus some delicious new material. Encore featured a cover of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down".

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