Review/Photos: Broken Bells @ The Wiltern, 10/6/10

Toward the end of the Broken Bells' set last week, James Mercer shot a cold, hard stare at guitarist Dan Elkan, the brilliant and exuberant side man whose backing vocals had strayed off key.

It might have been barely perceptible (see the video below and fast forward to around the four minute mark if you are like me and don't like waiting), and it was a fruitless error during an otherwise rousing rendition of the night's closer, "The Mall and Misery," but Mercer, the perfectionist, quietly seethed.

And for good reason. The Broken Bells are quickly becoming a brand in and of themselves, much like The Shins after their rocket-propelled ascent. The Bells' sound is greatly (though not entirely) dependent on Mercer's golden pipes and any variation on that beauty can throw the whole damn thing off. Fortunately, Mercer is backed by a clever set of troubadours and Danger Mouse (or Brian Burton as he likes to be called during this venture) who collectively lifted their recent show at The Wiltern to new heights, reflecting their burgeoning creativity and willingness to step ever so slightly from their comfort zone.

While Burton gets a lot of the credit for that creativity (as he should), the significant gifts of the supporting crew are what really allows the Broken Bells to soar, both in general and at their recent Wiltern gig.

Elkan, the pulse of the group, bounced around the stage like an electron. On guitar, he's innovative, energetic and a breath of live air next to the mostly placid Mercer. Sidemen Nate Walcott and Nik Freitas (both of Conor Oberst’s Mystic Valley) and bassist Jonathan Hischke form a nucleus that breeds ingenuity.

How much of that comes from the men at the top is anyone's guess, but it is clear that the fate of Broken Bells will survive or die with the top brass. Thankfully for fans, the future looks bright.

The band that night played much off their often gorgeous debut, flavoring them with an extra kick while also adding two new songs that show Broken Bells is not afraid to go in a different direction.

"Insane Lullaby" was a quiet little ballad of Burton on piano and Mercer on acoustic guitar. It fell softly over the sold out audience as "Everlasting Light," a Black Keys song, shifted the show from merely nice to New York City raw.

These padded outstanding versions of "Sailing to Nowhere" and b-side "Meyrin Fields," an undulating rhythm that are what the Broken Bells sound like all grown up. It undulated and seethed with life (maybe opening act Autolux got to them) and the audience reciprocated, swaying with the energy and bouncing in tow.

The show was a welcome leap forward from the last time the Bells were in town and portends great things for a band that seems to be at a crossroads. With a solid effort under their belt and a half dozen geniuses guiding the way, will they fall back into a comfort zone or will they push the envelope and challenge fans (and themselves)? If past is prologue, fans are not likely not to lose faith. If they can stay on key, that is.