It’s been a while since we’ve seen Gnarls Barkley frontman Cee-Lo Green. “As you can see,” he said from stage at New York City’s Highline Ballroom last night, “I’ve grown a full head of beautiful hair!” Onmi-pop duo Gnarls Barkley played their first show in support of just-released second album The Odd Couple, and yeah, first things first: Cee-Lo rocked a huge pompadour and clutched what looked like a vintage Shure, leading his six-piece crew (including producer Danger Mouse) as the howling frontman of a puffy-shirted soul band — maybe the kind that would play a bar mitzvah or the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance in Back to the Future. Together they previewed the set they’ll presumably be bringing out to the festival circuit this summer when they hit Lollapalooza, the KCRW World Festival and probably a couple others.
“It was a night of working out kinks — opener Santogold smiled and joked through her technical problems and her issues with remembering stage props. But when she hit the growling synths of “Creator,” everyone freaked out anyway, whether they knew her as the next rising kitchen-sink popster or just “Santowho?” she definitely made an impression. Apologizing up front for their own tech glitches, there were ostensibly problems with Gnarls Barkley’s earpiece monitors, what appeared to be an unplugged Moog, some ill-placed stage banter and a little lag-time when the five-blue-jacketed multi-instrumentalists approximated Mr. Danger Mouse’s kitschpunk productions by hectically switching from glock to upright bass to whatever — but damned if we noticed or cared. Since the Barkley band was scrambling around the stage like busy chemists searching for an antidote, it only created a unique tension that made everything more human and fun.
Opening with “Charity Case,” the band rumbled through material off The Odd Couple, including “Surprise,” “Going On” and “Whatever.” When they hit “Run,” Cee-Lo embodied the Little Richard figure he was portraying — someone who had let their pious side mingle with their dark side in tortured abandon, opening his arms to lead a pop spiritual, then running his hands through his thick wig. Pure ecstasy or a piece of theater made to approximate pure ecstasy? It didn’t really matter. (Danger Mouse, however, stayed cool as a cucumber, stuck behind his shades and his organ.)
And, duh, of course they played “Crazy,” as they will in every show for the next forty years, complete with a self-aware shrug from Cee-Lo and a mike held over the audience — all met with the screaming, singing along or wistful stares you could expect from any band performing their Thriller moment. Gnarls Barkley doesn’t have a “Man in the Mirror” moment (yet), but they tried with bittersweet closer ” Little Better” and encore “Smiling Faces.” Still nothing got a reaction like “Crazy.” “You’re not tired of that song yet? ” joked Cee-Lo. Ha ha ha, bless your soul.