Usually when you’re going to see an act with a two-album catalogue, the question of “What will they play?” doesn’t come up. Then again, most acts don’t score a massive hit with a pop-soul confection about the sweet relief of relinquishing your sanity. (Google “Crazy,” “Gnarls Barkley,” “2006,” “ubiquitous.”) Gnarls Barkley — vocalist-shaman Cee-Lo Green and aural scenarist Danger Mouse — dutifully checked off “Crazy” at their sold-out 9:30 Club show Tuesday night, but more exciting was their weirdly faithful cover of Radiohead’s “Reckoner,” a late-inning curve in a strong 75-minute show that otherwise couldn’t help but disappoint a little in its ordinariness.
Good-to-great tunes, performed with verve and emotion? Mos def. But where was the bling? If ever a group cried out for bombast — a Mothership, a Mirrorball Lemon, some eyebrow-singeing pyrotechnics, an 18-foot (or 18 inch) model of Stonehenge — it’s this one. Mix Gnarls’ songbook with Coldplay’s A/V committee and you’d really have something.
Gnarls’ tunes (weighted slightly in favor of The Odd Couple, this year’s worthy sequel to 2006’s St. Elsewhere that's done only a fraction of the latter's business) sounded raw and powerful performed (apparently) sample-free by a six-piece band featuring tight-lipped “Grey Album” auteur Danger Mouse on keys. Green’s raspy wail felt even more desperate than on record, the palpable road wear further distressing his grimly infectious ruminations on neurasthenic distemper.
“Surprise” had a sunny New Pornographers vibe, and the energy climbed higher with Violent Femmes’s “Gone Daddy Gone” and “Run.” But longish tween-song pauses sapped momentum. Even Gnarls’ sartorial swagger was muted: Green has been known to perform in Roman solider’s togs or an outsized pompadour wig. But he and Mouse could have been in the Temptations with their spangly sport jackets and gold lame ties.
“In in the mood for some old-fashioned rock and roll” Green squeaked before an angular, crunchy “Whatever.” That described much of the evening’s music, but “Transformer” got a downbeat acoustic re-fit, and the main-set closing “A Little Better” was tricked out with off-kilter syncopation.
It rocked, it rolled, it spooked, it cooed. I just wish it had been, well, crazier. Does that make me, um . . . picky? Prob-bab-bleeeeeeeeeeeeee . . .
A slightly abridged version of this review appears in today's Paper of Record.
Gnarls Barkley at the 9:30 Club, Tuesday, August 5, 2008
01 Charity Case
03 Gone Daddy Gone
04 Run (I'm a Natural Disaster)
05 Blind Mary
06 Just a Thought
07 Going On
11 (tune I couldn't identify; lots of wah-wah pedal)
13 A Little Better
14 Who's Gonna Save My Soul
16 Smiley Faces
Were not introduced!