Reeling mists, saturnine carvings, blood-red antediluvian light fixtures— the sold-out venue was perfect for a Ouija board session. It also suited a duo steeped in bizarro-pop emulation (ah, those promo photos).
But how would the group known for a love of spectacle bring their crossover hit St. Elsewhere, a work of electric-soul intricacy, to the New York stage? The emcee punk’d us, stating that regrettably, Gnarls couldn’t make it, and proffered up a cover band named Brushfire instead. The devastating news was met by nary a clap until—voilà!—the stars themselves appeared in hair-metal regalia: DJ-producer Danger Mouse had the boa, enigmatic hip-hop crooner Cee-Lo had the cloak, and each flaunted a gargantuan mullet wig. Oy. Was this posturing for the scenester nation? An ironic homage to Axl Rose, perhaps? Nope: The metal accoutrement was less about shock value and more about teaching kids some musical unity using anachronism.
Heaps of supporting musicians strode onstage as well, but Cee-Lo took the forefront as a new kind of sex symbol with a new kind of liturgy. He had Aretha in the urethra, belly quivering over spandex tights in plain defiance of skeletal-hipster vanity, while svelte Danger Mouse modestly took a scratcher’s backseat, the Mary Magdalene to Cee-Lo’s Jesus. But those spoonfuls of sugar do help soul’s medicine go down—surely a suicide anthem was never met with such lively sing-along as “Just a Thought?” And hell, if Gnarls’s patented threesome of metal, soul, and goofy dance-offs makes the masses swallow, so be it. But I’m wondering now what the future holds for Gnarls Barkley. Their valiantly irreverent attempt to cross color lines mirrors the bread and butter of pioneers like the Beasties and Eddie Murphy, freethinkers with both the brains and commercial clout to see their heavier tomes to fruition and wean the shortsighted from ignorance. Can these guys match their longevity? In any event, at least we know that, for now, their library of sound provides a respite from the watery indie shows where I nod off and dream of cheeseburgers.