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Broken Bells at First Avenue, 2/28/14

Broken Bells at First Avenue, 2/28/14
Photo By Tony Nelson

Broken Bells
With Au Revoir Simone
First Avenue, Minneapolis
February 28, 2014

When Broken Bells initially came together, the group had the sound and the feel of a one-off side project for the Shins' James Mercer and über producer Brian Burton (Danger Mouse). With the arrival of their second full-length, After the Disco, the band took on more of a substantial air, and has surpassed the other releases they have tied their names to in recent years.

Broken Bells launched their U.S. tour for the new record at a sold-out First Avenue on Friday night, and Mercer and Burton (along with two backing musicians) delivered a mostly enthralling 90-minute, 18-song set that demonstrated just how textured and absorbing their music can be when it's delivered on such a grand scale.

The quartet, clad in all black, took to the smoke-filled stage in front of a half-moon screen filled with astral images, while surrounded by ornate, old-Hollywood director's lights. Those striking visuals ultimately helped make the show quite compelling. As with the Shins, Mercer isn't the most gregarious frontman (and Burton didn't say a word throughout), so the show would have to be propelled by the music rather than any memorable between song banter.

For a tour kick-off show, the well-paced performance went off without any major kinks, as the group launched the set with a towering version of "A Perfect World," with Mercer and Burton set up behind space-aged keyboards that gave them the look of a modern day Kraftwerk. Mercer picked up an electric guitar for a scorching solo as the song began to swell, before Burton switched to bass to lead funky renditions of "The Ghost Inside" and "After the Disco" that continued the intoxicating start, with Mercer passionately pouring himself into his vocals.

Broken Bells at First Avenue, 2/28/14
Broken Bells at First Avenue, 2/28/14
Photos By Tony Nelson

After thanking the crowd, Mercer then announced mischievously, "This is our first show on this tour. I don't know if that makes you lucky, or not. All right, on with the music." "The Waiting Game" found the band shifting towards a more moody, downtempo tone, with accompanying saturnine stage lighting and vast cosmic imagery. The tranquil pink lantern that adorns their self-titled debut album rose on the screen like a futuristic sun during a pulsating version of that record's closing track, "The Mall & Misery," which flowed smoothly into a somber, anguished take on "The Angel & the Fool," augmented by the towering, stylish shadows of James and Brian on the backdrop as the pair delivered the number side-by-side.

 

Mercer picked up an acoustic guitar for a buoyant, Bee Gee's-like version of "Holding On For Life," as Danger Mouse provided a smooth bass line that gave the track some added bounce. Burton switched to drums for dynamic renditions of "Vaporize" and "Control," injecting the songs with a lively backbeat that the rest of the band elegantly built upon. A soaring, exquisite version of "Meyrin Fields" proved to be one of the high-points of the performance, as the towering and textured electronic beats filled the club. A tranquil run through of "Sailing to Nowhere" brought the rhythm of the set back down again, but the track built to a glorious finish, as the band gracefully shifted from classic rock tones to a lush, orchestral ending. Mercer joked after the outro faded out, "We sometimes refer to that song as 'Chord Party,' because there's a million chords in it. But I only have five."

Broken Bells at First Avenue, 2/28/14
Broken Bells at First Avenue, 2/28/14
Broken Bells at First Avenue, 2/28/14
Photos By Tony Nelson

Openers Au Revoir Simone then joined the band as backing vocalists, adding a stylish touch to the rest of the main set. Their dulcet vocals gave a dignified charm to a swinging version of "Medicine," while their contributions to "The Changing Lights" were mostly saved for the chorus, as the track's simmering, textured beats rang out pristinely throughout the club. "Leave it Alone," took on the flavor of a gospel-like singalong, as the slow-burning track proved to be infectious and soulful. While a hypnotic take on "The High Road" had the girls of Au Revoir Simone and a good majority of the packed house dancing to Broken Bells' big single, which ended the main set gloriously.

Sadly, the band seemed to run out of steam and vital material during the languid encore, with Burton and Mercer easing into things alone on the acoustic-driven "Citizen," before the rest of the band joined them for a somnolent version of "October." A percussion-fueled version of "Trap Doors" showed some signs of life, but the set ended mostly with a whisper, especially when compared to the luxurious, inspired material featured earlier in the set. But after Broken Bells second sold-out show at First Avenue, it's becoming clear that the band is more than just the mere sum of their parts, and might be more enduring than a short-lived side-project after all.

Critic's Notebook:

Personal Bias: While I like both of Broken Bells' albums, their live show is truly where these songs take flight. And while the Shins will always have better songs, Broken Bells live show is far superior to Mercer's celebrated other band.

The Crowd: Filled with fans of both the Shins and Danger Mouse's production work, interested in seeing how Burton and Mercer sound together.

Overheard In The Crowd: "This sounds like it could be a Shins B-side" -- During "Vaporize."

Broken Bells at First Avenue, 2/28/14
Photo By Tony Nelson

Random Notebook Dump: In addition to their elegant contributions to Broken Bells performance, Au Revoir Simone delivered a beguiling 35-minute opening set that drew from their intoxicating recent album, Move In Spectrums. "More Than," "The Lead Is Galloping," and "Crazy" all soared, with the trio's golden vocals and captivating beats ringing out textured and true throughout the packed club. I'm sure they earned themselves some new fans with this enchanting performance, while I personally can't wait until they return to Minneapolis to headline their own show.

Setlist:

A Perfect World

The Ghost Inside

After The Disco

The Waiting Game

The Mall and Misery

The Angel & the Fool

Holding On For Life

Vaporize

Control

Meyrin Fields

Sailing To Nowhere

Medicine

The Changing Lights

Leave It Alone

The High Road

--Encore--

Citizen

October

Trap Doors


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