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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
The Carling Academy Islington, Islington, London, June 14th 2008

You may be surprised, Serge, that we’re back so soon at a venue that I only recently described as a shithole after our unfortunate experience there trying to watch Sparks. And you’d be no more surprised than I, as we were supposed to be at Islington’s charming and delightful Union Chapel just up the road, rather than in this soulless concrete box.

The reason for the last-minute change is a mystery (perhaps), but my anger was palpable when I learned via e-mail that the chance to see Gnarls Barkley play a stripped-down and ‘intimate’ gig at the Chapel had been snatched from me. But once my fury had abated, I began to put in place a plan honed with military precision to ensure that, unlike our last visit to the Islington Academy, we would be standing somewhere vaguely pleasant with a clear view of the stage. So, accompanied by a six-foot-six ex-bouncer I hired for the night and his feisty companion, we set off North for an early supper, a leading place in the queue and standing places at the front of the upstairs balcony. Mission accomplished, and it’s only about seven o’clock - but it’s an early gig that will be followed by Club de Fromage. And there’s a more than engaging opening session from the Shortwave Set, who seem to be as surprised as we are to be there so early, but nonetheless persevere with their chirpy little electronica-fuelled ditties.
Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton (L) and Cee-Lo Green, aka Thomas Callaway (R)
They are here, I have no doubt, because their new album Replica Sun Machine was produced (or over-produced according to some) by celebrity producer of the moment, no, not Mark Ronson, but Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton. He who, when not making records for the likes of Gorillaz, The Good the Bad and the Queen, The Black Keys and Beck (or pissing off EMI as he did when he produced The Grey Album, an unofficial remix of the Beatles’ classic White Album) is one half of chart-topping sensation Gnarls Barkley. The other, significantly larger, half is rapper and vocalist Cee-Lo Green, aka Thomas Callaway. So just to be clear, and particularly for the benefit of the Bouncer (“I’ve been looking up Miles Barclay on the internet and can’t find out anything about him”), Gnarls is a band, not a bloke. And of course, a band that took the world by storm with their first single ‘Crazy’, which technophiles might like to recall was the first single to reach number one in the UK charts as a result of downloads only. The album from which it came, St Elsewhere, was also a massive hit. Now, strangely for artistes of such repute, they seem to be suffering from second album syndrome. ‘Crazy’ was so bouncy and compelling that probably few took time to listen to the dark sentiments that really drove it along. In addition, the pair’s on-stage personae, defined by wacky-themed costumes (sometimes based on old movies), have tended to suggest a light-heartedness that is far from evident in their songs (that’s not to say they don’t have a lot of humour in them, but it’s of a pretty adult nature). Thus, being grown-up music, grown-up lyrics and frankly quite gloomy, is possibly why The Odd Couple has stalled a little, and possibly why the pair are in London to play a few ‘intimate’ sets for their “biggest fans” with band member, multi-instrumentalist and occasional Butthole Surfer Josh Klinghoffer, “to reveal the essence of the songs”.
Gnarls Barkley
Well, the Islington Academy may be small, but it’s not what I’d call intimate. And what we have on stage is a full band decked out like college kids: drums; percussion; bass; two guitarists (one is the energetic Mr Klinghoffer, who also plays keyboards); Mr Mouse on Hammond organ with the addition of some neat electronic effects, and of course, the imposing Cee-Lo. They hit the stage like an express train, with ‘Charity Case’ and ‘Surprise’ from the new album, both very powerful, built on top of a sixties-sounding rhythm - I was strongly reminded of older Tommy James and the Shondells stuff like ‘Mony mony’. It’s very carefully packaged and put together (as you would expect), right down to the sound of the children’s xylophone, and at the heart of things, Mr Mouse’s Hammond, which as the Photographer put it, was artfully weaving everything together. Mr Mouse was so busy at his keyboard that we barely got a glimpse of him, but Cee-Lo was a more-than-adequate front man. For all the menace in his lyrics and (some might think) his appearance, he captivated the audience with his commanding voice (at its best when pushed into a blues or gospel vein, as on the first encore ‘Save my soul’). He’s absolutely engrossed in the moment when singing, but apart from the fact that he obviously bought the watch with the extra diamonds, there’s nothing ostentatious here. Between songs, in what little time there is, he exhibits the irresistible charm of a naughty schoolboy.
Cee-Lo Green It’s played out at a breathless pace: fifteen songs in an hour, each around three minutes long. They end with a rousing version of ‘Smiley Faces’, again driven by a classic sixties bass line (think ‘You can’t hurry love’ by the Supremes, backed by the Funk Brothers). Altogether a great set, the highlight of which was a slowed-down, almost gospel version of ‘Transformer’ when Cee-Lo’s voice was simply stunning. The Photographer loved it, the Bouncer’s feisty companion loved it, I loved it, but the Bouncer insisted “that they weren’t quite there”, in his estimation.
And even if the Carling Academy isn’t the best venue in the world, from our vantage point we were as close to the band as you could ever wish to be, and it’s got to be a lot better than the sort of stadia that Gnarls Barkley normally occupy. Second album syndrome? On this showing not a bit of it, although it’s just possible that they might have outgrown the mass audience who made ‘Crazy’ such a massive hit. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)

Kate's photo album Kate's photographs
Listen: Gnarls Barkley's MySpace page

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