Driving home from the Broken Bells show we decided to pick up a couple of hitchhikers, as we thought we needed to do something a bit rock and roll. As we drove away from the venue with two strangers in our car, we reflected on the performances we’d just seen. Our too-drunk-to-drive passengers concurred that it was a great show but also felt something was missing. No wasted groupies falling over each other, no mind-blowing solos of any description, no crowd surfing, no surprises, just nice. They did deliver an absolutely spot-on performance technically in terms of translating their album into a live soundscape with perfect harmonization and every note hitting right where it should. But without any on-stage excesses, the performance finished in just under an hour and with such a clean performance, it did seem to finish too soon. Overall, it just lacked that ineffable quality of a really memorable show that leaves you in awe.
Nonetheless, the band started strong, opening with Vaporize and following up with the hugely successful single, The High Road. From there, they performed every song off the album as well as a dreamy cover of Tommy James & The Shondells’ Crimson and Clover. The cover was tight and super clean, almost sanitized. It lacked the psychedelic playfulness of the original with the pulsating vocal loop of the song’s namesake. Criticism aside, it was visually evident by the end of the first few songs how serious the pair are about their music and their attention to perfection. Although obscured by guitars, effect pedals, and a beautiful Wurlitzer electric piano, you could occasionally see Burton’s head popping out assuredly between extremely concise drum pattern arrangements giving the nod to Mercer who’s voice refused to drift off pitch.
I’d heard of Mercer being a bit reticent on stage in the past but on this night, he seemed in great spirits and it seems the weight of the post-Shins past has been foregone for a brighter future with this new project. He gave the crowd a bit of wry humor, commenting on the “Three’s Company vibe – in a good way!” of the harbor-side, open air venue of Humphrey’s which was pretty accurate with it’s Tommy Bahama flavor. San Diego is no Silver Lake and people are more likely to go to the beach here than an art opening but in spite of it’s Jimmy Buffet vibe, the crowd gave back a proper response to the performance with hands-in-the-air and standing ovations and even a drunk soccer mom storming the front row and having to be escorted back to her seat. Now that’s class. As Mercer and Burton left the stage, I could see them give each other a discreet high-five in the shadows and I think that serves as quiet confirmation of the success of their new partnership.
Back to the drive home…
As the post-concert traffic finally gave way, we actually defied the San Diego stereotype I just created and continued on to an art show with our hitchhikers turned friends. We all were in agreement that the show, although lacking in any single, pointed moment of greatness, was extremely polished and a great amplified version of the album…but that’s only half the story.
It would be remiss to finish without mentioning opening band, The Morning Benders and what a pleasant surprise their performance was.
Until now, The Morning Benders were only vaguely familiar to me as one of the new wave of indie-art-pop bands in the same vein as Grizzly Bear and Sufjan Stevens that I hadn’t taken the time to give a good listen to. After hearing just one song though, I found myself in a halcyon daze, fully connecting with the music. Layers of intricate sound and harmonizing vocals all expanded via some of the heaviest reverb I’ve ever heard and all delivered by band who’s combined weight couldn’t be more than a few hundred pounds and who’s combined age would appear to be around 60. In contrast to the main attraction, The Morning Benders delivered frequent moments of unadulterated punctuation in both their musical performance and their stage presence. By engaging and allowing the crowd to actively participate in the performance, the divide between stage and seating dissolved and there was movement everywhere. They brought a mature richness of sound and pure enthusiasm; band members certifiably rocked out (as much as they could in their constricting skinny jeans), danced around the stage, and just had a wicked time. Midway through their set, the band’s lead singer Chris Chu encouraged everyone to come up and have a dance, although he didn’t realize how successful his offer would be and subsequently, quashed by the security staff. A-for-effort, right? For me, The Benders really brought the spirit and sound of shoegaze rock without the actual shoegazing (thankfully) and offered personality as well. As the masses filtered out, the band were all there at the gate – humble as could be – signing records & cd’s and modestly thwarting off advances from little girls in various knitwear and converse sneakers – just dying to give them a tour of their town and it’s lovely beaches.