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Broken Bells – Royal Festival Hall, London 21/06/2010

23 June 2010, 09:38 | Written by Ash Akhtar


On the final night of the Meltdown Festival (curated by Richard Thompson), Broken Bells make their European live debut. A giant screen dominates the stage at the Royal Festival Hall: a screen that will host flickering abstract images of warm technicolour magically rendered to look like nostalgic footage captured in the late ‘60s on Super 8.

A meandering clarinet line reminiscent of Nino Rota’s ‘Speak Softly Love’ sounds from the PA, Munch-like colours flash out from the previously blank dominatrix and the band stroll casually on stage. Tonight the writing duo are part of an expanded seven-piece band that includes three guitarists, two keyboards and a Fender Rhodes. Anyone who’s heard Broken Bells can rightly assume that the reason for the extravagance is down to Mercer littering the album with sweet and corpulent vocal harmonies.

Burton begins on the Rhodes while the band open out on to a intergalactic instrumental before switching to drums for first full song, ‘October’. Though intent on capturing the Beach Boys’ ebullient harmonies, the sound coming from the stage is thick with mud. The supporting electric guitars all thrum dully around the lower-mid range and Mercer’s acoustic is no more attractive.

Second single ‘Ghost Inside’ sounds next and, with its hip-hop beat, it’s the closest Broken Bells get to Gnarls Barkley smash, ‘Crazy’. The screen beams out an image of the Broken Bells album cover – perhaps to remind us of whom we are watching – before a shrill solo trumpet and its vibrating treble frequency drags our attention centre stage. An extended jam to ‘Ghost Inside’ is underway: needlessly orchestrated, it falls hopelessly flat – detracting from its supposed impromptu delivery.

Much like Jack White’s Raconteurs on their debut UK tour, Broken Bells’ one album setlist is bolstered by a dusting of cover versions. Tommy James and the Shondells’ oft-covered ‘Crimson and Clover’ is next and is mostly faithful to the original. Before breaking into ‘Trap Doors’, Mercer engages the audience with a cryptic quip about skating at South Bank before proceeding to jokingly claim that the gig is a ‘homecoming’ for him. The use of a drum machine means that the audience finally hear a balanced kick and snare combination, but the bass honk from the stage washes out any dynamic light like a chamois leather dipped in black paint.

Though Burton flits between drums, guitar and Rhodes, the sound remains the same. That, sadly, seems to suggest how anonymous the investigation of the instrumentation actually is. With such great affection for the precise sound of the instrument, it no longer matters who is actually playing it. Single ‘The High Road’ gets a solid response and ‘Vaporize’ follows precisely as the album order dictates. The pedestrian plodding pace is frustrating. Boring, even.

As the band saunter off stage, some audience members stand, applaud and scream for the group to stay. When they eventually return, it’s Smokey Robinson’s 1962 hit, ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me’, that gets the Broken Bells treatment. Ultimately, it’s a pub-rock version as played by top-flight session musicians with the desperate, agonizing passion that inhabits the original sucked from this sterile, carbon copy. Appropriately enough, Broken Bells round things off with ‘The Mall and Misery’.

Mercer and Burton exit stage left, abandoning the band to their psychedelic space rock noodling and the audience give the pair a thoroughly deserved standing ovation for so precisely exhibiting their tintinnabulation of absolute mediocrity.

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