Concerts are the best. The absolute, without a doubt, best. And after you’ve been to a variety of shows, festivals, bars, lounges, and arenas, you begin to appreciate the performances that truly stand out. The ones that make your jaw drop or your skin tingle—the ones that make you shut your eyes tight and fall into the epic immediacy of live sound.
Now, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I am in love with James Mercer. He is calm and brilliant, understated and gifted — arguably the most influential singer songwriter to serenade my mid-20’s. Broken Bells, his side project (The Shins is his main band), is a collaboration of Mercer’s musical talents and mastermind Dangermouse, legendary producer of Gnarls Barkley, among others.
I saw Broken Bells at The Fox Theater in Oakland, an incredible venue with dazzling lights, giant buddha-monkey statues, and the always entertaining Oakland crowd. This was a particularly special event—an anniversary gift of a band my Eclectic Perspective co-captain and I saw five years earlier. Favorite songwriter, legendary memories, and an easy Uber ride from our new apartment? “Life’s hard,” as my (other) roommate is fond of saying.
Broken Bells recently released After the Disco, a strong follow-up to their first album, the aptly named Broken Bells. After the Disco really harps on the band’s synth and pop motif, which I like a little less than their rocking, harmony driven first album. Their songs grow slowly, though, and become planted in the mind upon second and third listen.
I was curious how the live act would sound. It is hard to replicate such a meticulously arranged record. Layers and layers of soft vocals surround arching keyboard melodies and punch-perfect snares. But, low and behold, the boys know what they are doing. The songs were slightly stripped–just four people performed them live–but each one sounded full and clean and whip-cracking tight.
Mercer, typically with a guitar in hand, sung many of the songs without an instrument. He looked a bit like lounge singer, gripping the mic and gazing earnestly–a stark contrast to his indie I can do it all routine. But, after the first song, the reason became clear. Instead of a guitar solo, Mercer took extended vocal solos (!) in each song, pushing his sweet, sweet voice to its limits.
Oh my god. My favorite singer belting and belting, unleashing melodies over and beyond what his well crafted songs already employ. Musical ecstasy ensues.
They played a mix of old and new songs. My two favorites were “Leave It Alone” off the new album, a fairly slow mantra that gets to the heart of hard conversations. Mercer really belts on this one, and the composition is incredible.
My favorite live take off the old album was actually “The High Road.” This was their (overplayed) single off Broken Bells, but they stripped the song to find a more bare, vulnerable place, and then played it powerfully. The whole crowd sang along and each band member smiled in response. Can’t ask for much more.
These guys, unlike King Krule or London Grammar are not young or inexperienced. They are veteran musicians that perform without flaw or fail. And they did, with a boldness and ease that impressed and delighted.
The set was pretty intense too—a coordinated movie screen depicted their always gelatinous, spiky ball of pink goo flowing to the beat, fancy keyboard stands in the shape of the moon and color of moonstone, and perfectly hued overhead lights. It’s nice to see an entire package executed wonderfully.
If you can, see them on this tour. It is definitely worth it.
Highlights: Leave It Alone, The High Road, Medicine
Video: Broken Bells – Leave It Alone