A sold-out crowd packed into the Civic Theatre last Wednesday to soak in the otherworldly sounds of Broken Bells as they tore through tracks from their 2010 debut and their recently released follow-up, After the Disco. The band is the collaborative project of James Mercer (the creative force behind The Shins) and producer Danger Mouse, whose resumé boasts some of the 21st century’s most important pop artists, including Beck, The Black Keys, Gorillaz, Norah Jones, and U2. As Broken Bells, the duo makes expertly crafted songs with synth bloops, drum loops, acoustic strums, and whatever else they can get their hands on. The result sounds like an alien’s favorite mixtape for late-night drives around the Milky Way.
The show started strong with Mercer on electric guitar and Danger Mouse on synths, and really hit its stride during “The Ghost Inside,” as Mercer busted out his impressive falsetto. Mercer’s strong, expressive voice was front and center for most of the set as he delivered dark, cryptic lyrics. Danger Mouse hung back in the shadows as he provided a vast palette of sound through synths, bass, and drums that kept the atmosphere dark yet danceable. The two additional band members onstage effectively translated the meticulously crafted studio recordings into a live setting, and even added some subtle flourishes that enhanced the songs.
At times, it felt as if the Civic Theatre was a fifth member of the band, thanks to the top-notch sound system and impressive lighting that seemed built for the recently restored theater. Every note echoed loud and clear from the floor to the top of the balcony as the sound bounced off the old walls. Most impressive, though, was the unique lighting; each song had a distinct lighting scheme, thanks to constantly changing colored lights and a giant projector that displayed hypnotic images cued to the music. During the quieter tune “The Angel and the Fool,” Mercer and Danger Mouse stood in front of the projector, casting colossal shadows on the back curtain, subsequently producing a larger than life visual to accompany the duo’s unique sound. It’s always refreshing to see modern artists utilizing their visual presentation to enhance, rather than distract from, their music.
The set ended with the band’s first single from 2010, “The High Road,” as the rapt crowd sang along to the chorus of “It’s too late to change your mind, you let loss be your guide.” Thunderous applause brought the band back for a three-song encore, starting with a quiet duet that slowly morphed into an electro lullaby. When Mercer raised his glass to the audience to say goodnight, he had the satisfied expression of a creative genius at the top of his game. Here’s to his funky band making a return trip to the Crescent City in the near future.