Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Life is a carnival

Just caught another interesting episode of Austin City Limits (one of many lately, after a longish dry run) featuring Gnarls Barkley and Thievery Corporation: a perfect double bill in many ways, not least of which was my suspicion that it would all be a lot more fun if I saw it in person. Not that the two sets weren't plenty of fun on the tube, mind you, but both of them were so clearly focused on the live experience: participatory, energetic, unexpected.

Watching GB in action, it dawned on me that they are the Was (Not Was) of the Aughts--wacky lyrics, juxtapositions that shouldn't work but mostly do, surprise mainstream smash hit, general sense that they're smart folks who think about what they're up to. Maybe in 20 years DangerMouse will end up doing commentaries on NPR, like David Was does now.

I'd seen Gnarls on TV before and knew what to expect, but TC was a revelation as a live act. I've enjoyed their recordings, both the mix compilations they curate and their own album projects, but their concert incarnation is a circus, complete with seven vocalists, a sitar player, a horn section, a dancer, and miscellaneous other folks filling the stage at various points. I learned from the end credits that that was Frank Orrall from Poi Dog Pondering on ukulele and percussion, and it was a treat to see and hear Seu Jorge join the ensemble for a cover of Jorge Ben (Jor)'s super-catchy "Umbabaraumba."

The most striking aspect of the TC spectacle was the fact that its two ostensible frontmen, DJs Rob Garza and Eric Hilton (the latter can look kinda cute when they're wearing formal attire, which they weren't doing this time, alas), were way back in the mix, both sonically and visually, occupying center stage only when they took their final bows. Fleshing out what began as a two-man operation with 14--count 'em, FOURTEEN--guest performers is a gutsy and, to my way of thinking, very smart move. Shy guys in electronic music is all but a given; I watched the two men who make up Autechre hide behind laptops several years back, and DangerMouse spoke in his post-concert ACL interview about not particularly relishing the live aspect of his job (no problem in his case, since Cee-Lo is such a forceful figure onstage). The Thievery solution not only allows them to share the stage with folks who are much more at home on one, it also gives a human form to the political themes in their lyrics and the dazzling range of genres (bossa, lounge, dance, hiphop, Indian pop, and so much more).

Here is but a tease. Judicious searching on YouTube will surely yield you longer examples of both acts in concert.

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