Broken Bells Play To Fans' Expectations at Oakland Fox

Justin Bolois/Photo

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Broken Bells
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Oftentimes musicians use a live performance as an opportunity to toy with their songs. It's a way to escape the doldrums of playing the exact chord progressions for the 50th time in a row. For instance, Bob Dylan is notorious for deviating from a song's recording so as to render it entirely unrecognizable. But for a fan these variations can be frustrating, if not downright disappointing. You want to hear what you've been listening to and studying on the album, not scratching your head the first few minutes trying to discern the song being played. Broken Bells, co-fronted by the Shins' lead singer James Mercer and mash-up connoisseur Danger Mouse, catered to the fans Tuesday night at the Fox Theater by putting on a show that was nearly identical to their self-titled debut album's childlike sense of conviction - quirky, bubbly and utterly tasty.

But Broken Bells really couldn't afford to throw any curveballs when the show was only an hour and ten minutes long. Mind you, they have only released one album, forcing them to play a handful of cover tunes to fill time, such as "Insane Lullaby" from the album Dark Night of the Soul (a collaboration project between Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse with accompanying photos from director David Lynch, initially shelved due to label politics but finally released this year) and the Black Keys' "Everlasting Light." The concert was satisfying, even considering its short duration. The experience wasn't like consuming a hearty entree of meat and potatoes, but ran more along the lines of munching on a snack, something that happily sustains you. It's simply the charm of pop music.

The one thing Broken Bells lack is stage charisma. During the show I spotted a few confetti remnants floating down onto the stage, most likely leftovers from the Flaming Lips spectacle that was held at the Fox a few days earlier. While I'm not asking them to entertain us in the same way as the Flaming Lips do with metaphysical vaginas and heady notions of rebirth (it's simply not in their nature or style of playing), it wouldn't have hurt for Danger Mouse, or even Mercer for that matter, to break out of their stoic, muted facial expressions. But maybe that's just part of an elusive persona tactfully built and maintained. After all, no one (including Mercer and Danger Mouse) hogged the spotlight or took over with a dazzling solo. The pot was stirred evenly, and everyone got a chance to taste the brew.

As far as stage design and aesthetics, the show was, well, odd. Behind the band was a large screen featuring projected images of abstract shapes and sporadic pixelations that changed throughout the performance, especially the pink meteor-like shape designed by artist Jacob Escobedo that graces the album's cover. Despite the strangeness of the imagery, the symbols held an attractive force to unquestionably reel you in, similar to the way their music functions. In a live situation the guitar sounds seeped out more definably with a roughness absent on the album; they were no longer stilted by a soft, fragile quality but tore through with harder grooves. There's a mesmerizing quality to their melodies - like gleaming crystals amid a space-age backdrop of iridescent laser beams - carried by Mercer's plush voice. As Mercer lilted the phrase "bring that scepter down" from the album's gunslinger guitar song "Mongrel Heart," an enormous billowing cloud of exhaled smoke from an audience member settled and permeated as if it were right on cue. Its imprint was hauntingly beautiful, and then - poof! - it vanished, leaving you wondering at both where that moment had fled to and how the concert had ended so abruptly.

Ride iridescent laser beams with Justin at [email protected]

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