Broken Bells @ Bootleg Theater, LA 2.19.10

We were lucky to be among a few hundred people to catch Broken Bells’ first-ever live performance Friday night at the Bootleg Theater in Echo Park. Broken Bells — if you haven’t heard yet — is a collaboration between James Mercer (of The Shins) and Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse).

Try to imagine what that might sound like and your expectations would be met and likely exceeded by the first single — “The High Road” — alone (video after the jump). Stack that on top of Burton’s track record as a multi-instrumentalist and producer over the past decade (The Grey Album, Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley, MF Doom, Beck) plus the mystery of it being Broken Bells first live performance and the Bootleg was buzzing with anticipation.

The crowd was a good mix of industry, critics, serious music freaks, and fans (we scored tickets out of the lot that went up for sale after 10am Friday for $15 each – and were gone by 10:30am, according to the Fold’s website).

After a spirited set by the house DJ’s, Broken Bells took the stage as a 6-piece band (two guitars, two keyboards, bass, drums). The band seemed well-rehearsed and the onstage demeanor was rather serious for a “surprise” show — the only announced Broken Bells concerts to date are London and Paris and as part of a SXSW showcase next month. A couple people mentioned that it was Burton’s first time playing drums onstage (he played keys on one or two tracks with prerecorded supporting beats). On the record — much like with the Gnarls Barkley collabs with Cee-Lo — Burton handled all the instrumentation as well as production, James Mercer wrote the songs and played guitar.

Mercer’s voice was strong and rose above Burton’s shuffling timekeeping. Several songs had a lilting bass groove reminiscent of the Manchester sound of 20 years ago — Stone Roses, Happy Mondays. It was also apparent that these musicians were influenced by the likes of Damon Albarn and Beck — not necessarily a bad thing. Add four- and five-part harmonies and some ace songwriting by Mercer and the live experience had a wall of sound, Floydian feel, melodies grinding through spiral video projected on the stage.

After each song everybody seemed to turn and look at each other with eyebrows raised as if to say, “wow, that actually sounded really good.” After ten songs the band left the stage briefly and then returned with the two greatest surprises of the night. First, the duo of Mercer and Burton rattled off a beautiful version of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” and then the rest of the band returned for a spot-on cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover.” Mercer led into it saying gingerly (to the crowd, the band or both?) “I don’t know if you’re ready for this but here it goes.”

Lights up. The house DJ cued The Turtles’ “Happy Together” and the crowd filed out, smiles all around.

Broken Bells drops March 9 on Sony / Columbia.

Originally posted at LAist.

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