MUSIC REVIEW | Broken Bells find the high road at First Avenue

Photos By: 
Chad Rieder

When people talk about shows they’ve been to, they generally talk about the artist. They talk about what they liked, what they didn’t like, or how much of the famous person’s sweat they got on them because they were right there under the stage. Usually, unless there’s some real jerk or jerkette standing in their personal space, they don’t talk about the crowd. Broken Bells was very sold-out, so I think mentioning the crowd is worthwhile.

The crowd at Broken Bells was remarkably taller and larger than the average for most shows I go to. Noticeably so. I’m average height, literally the average height for an American male, and I can usually see the stage from anywhere I stand in the main room. Last night, I was constantly shuffling between spots to avoid whatever indie-experimental pop-loving giant was standing in my sightline. I don’t know if First Avenue keeps the camera footage from the entrance, but I think there is a worthwhile demographic study in there somewhere. Why do unusually tall people really like Broken Bells? Isn’t indie music for slight and waifish people? I’m neither of those, either.

Broken Bells is a collaborative project of Brian Joseph Burton (Danger Mouse, Gnarls Barkley) and James Mercer (The Shins).  Despite the disco moments in their latest release After the Disco, their sound leans generally towards early new wave, prog rock (Sorry!),  and more modern astronauts such as Air or The Flaming Lips. Their recent hit song “Holding On for Life”  has a dead-on Bee-Gee sound that often gets credited to Barry Gibb himself. It’s a clever reference, because the song is either a sequel or reworking of the epic “Staying Alive”.

“Holding On for Life” is so catchy and such a monster that I had the feeling this was going to be one of those sold-out shows were everyone is really there to hear that one song. Not so — the crowd sounded as enthusiastic for the older material (2010) as it did for the rip-roaring choruses of the indie radio hit. This enthusiasm was justified because the considerable sound system they had at their service enhanced the music beyond the studio recordings. The bass dropped as loud as the soaring synthscapes and restless percussion, creating an immersive bubble of melody and rhythm.

Early in the show, the first of this tour, Mercer seemed a little unsure of his footing, as if something was not going quite according to plan. I couldn’t hear what it might have been, but he got into his frontman mode quick enough. This was the only weak point in what was a completely solid and natural performance.

Broken Bells put on a real show, not content to just show up and play their songs. Every aspect of the stage reflected the sounds they summoned for this kick-off show. The entire stage looked like something from a late sixties or early seventies science fiction film. The color washes of magenta, pink, red, green and blue were pulled directly from the palette of their thematic album art. Astroscapes and swirling analog patterns lit up the speherical orb that stood as a backdrop for this journey.

The subtle stage fog, filled by these colors, drifted off of the stage and merged with the not-quite-legal haze that hovered over parts of the crowd. (I suspect the taller members of the crowd enjoyed this.) Overall, the effect was that of a luminous, ethereal glow that bloomed out from the front of the room. This was a synethesiastic vision, if ever there was one. Despite the themes of loneliness, loss and heartache which drift through most of the Broken Bells lyrics, there was clearly something strong shining out from the music. As much as they may lament a world that’s lost much of its luster, they seem intent on creating something sublime and entrancing. A distant world might seem out of reach, but for a few hours it was brought down, like a feather touch, for even the shorter members of the audience to feel. The high road is a little easier to find. 


I should mention that Au Revoir Simone opened for Broken Bells. They were a tight trio that brought a solid mix of live instruments and electronica to warm up the crowd. Unfortunately, one of their members has taken to the hipster “mom jeans” look, and that was a bit distracting. Anyway, their own airy sounds filled the room with a clarity that is often lacking from keyboard based sounds. Within the synthy sounds, reminiscent of  Berlin or Kraftwerk was a solid groove that recalled Joy Division or New Order. As they left the stage, the house music came on with New Order’s “Age of Consent,” which was completely genius. 

Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.


The longest continual entertainment and music venue in the Twin Cities.
701 First Ave N
Minneapolis, MN 55403

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    Todd Wardrope's picture
    Todd Wardrope

    Todd Wardrope is a Minneapolis-based freelance video producer.