Broken Bells made a lot of noise the first day of the SXSW Music Festival with their "pop-up" show at a parking garage on Red River Street in downtown Austin. It took place at 1:00 pm and was packed to capacity. That trend continued at their Wednesday night NPR showcase at Stubb's.
Despite what you've been told, Broken Bells are not a duo consisting of James Mercer, on hiatus from the Shins, and Danger Mouse, on hiatus from Gnarls Barkley. Last night they were a seven-piece band, with multiple guitars, horns, and keys that provided a platform for Mercer to kick out the jams. Broken Bells played their entire self-titled album, starting with the endearing, organ-infused first single "The High Road." The ambient details Danger Mouse adds to Broken Bells' songs are not as readily apparent in a live setting — his in-studio electronic curlicues were relegated to preprogrammed samples, as he mostly manned a drum kit — but still make the songs feel like more than just Shins tunes with new players.
While Broken Bells may still be in pursuit of their live voice — the show was one of the band's handful of debut gigs — their onstage successor, Spoon, have had years to perfect a muscular, new-wave aesthetic. The Austin five-piece, augmented by a second percussionist, was introduced by the same disheveled fellow who introduced the Flaming Lips at a pre-SXSW gig in Austin last week attended by Spoon frontman Britt Daniel. (The guy said he was one of six people at the first ever Spoon show, where he reported that Daniel joked, "I wish I knew what it took to get people to like my music.")
Spoon raced through songs from the albums Transference and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga clad in black, amid sparse white lights. Daniel made occasional detours to wield his guitar like a mobster spraying a Tommy Gun. On cue with the rip-roaring "Don't Make Me a Target," the lights illuminated the stage in an orange glow that left the band exposed to the crowd.
Daniel performed two songs without his guitar, including a slowed-down version of the Damned's "Love Song," during which he wielded a maraca like a panhandler shaking a cup of coins. Then he proclaimed, "OK, we're gonna do it," and revisited the summer of 2007 with the hit "The Underdog," whose premise is no longer applicable.