Gnarls Barkley: Rebirth of soul

Gnarls Barkley at Avalon, August 12, 2006
By CARLY CARIOLI  |  August 14, 2006

I’m probably not the only one who went to the Gnarls Barkly show Friday night at Avalon wondering if the costumes would be the most interesting part. And look, unlike this rash of writers that wants only to critique the marketing campaign, I think St Elsewhere is a pretty good record. If there’s a hifalutin’ resonance in the rise of Gnarls, it has to do not with the triumph of advertising over content but with yet another unlikely twist in pop music’s notion of authorship. A couple years ago Danger Mouse became a copyright criminal with a clever parlor trick wherein he turned a Beatles album into a Jay-Z remix; today he is the credited co-author of the most revered pop single in the world -- a song covered by lots of "actual" musicians with an enthusiasm usually reserved for time-tested classics, not contemporary chart-topping mashups. What’s more, Danger Mouse's methodolgy on "Crazy" isn't so far from The Grey Album; the song sets Cee-Lo’s vocal over a cleaned-up spaghetti-western instrumental called "Nel Cimitero Di Tuscan" by Gianfranco Reverberi, which thanks to the internet I can tell you comes from a 1968 film, Preparati la bara. Last year’s piracy is next year’s folk music, maybe.

Right, so the costumes: this time it was tennis-pro chic, summer whites and headbands and sweatsocks. Kind of a letdown, actually – New York gets Star Wars and we get . . . the Williams sisters? But the shocking thing was how great they sounded. Taking the stage to an organ-fired fanfare of Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” the 12-piece group included a string quartet (dubbed the G-Strings), three backing singers, and what sounded like the reincarnation of the Stax Records house band. It’s an article of faith among rare-groove funk enthusiasts that a copy is often better than the original, and in the process of reinventing St. Elsewhere as a spot-on, early-’70s soul revue – the backing singers sashaying cooly in place, the G-Strings monster-mashing in their seats during “The Boogie Monster” – Gnarls suggested an all-inclusive metaphor for the regenerative powers of rock and roll. “This ain’t just studio shit,” Cee-Lo said at one point, seemingly as surprised as the gathered club sluts, hipsters, and boomers. “We do this.” Gracious, casual, effortlessly soulful, Cee-Lo played party-band host even as the music veered, as it so often does on St. Elsewhere, into darkness. As he contemplated suicide (“Just a Thought”) and corpses brought back to life with blowjobs (“Boogie Monster”), you had to wonder – this is the same guy who did Cribs in a dashiki? Like some hybrid of OV Wright and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Cee-Lo was out to put the whammy on you – during “Necromancer” he wiggled his fingers like a spellcaster, and he narrowed his Lugosi-esque intensity into vampire deathfunk on the group’s two covers, the Greenhornes’ “There’s an End” and the Doors’ “Who Scares You.” “Crazy” should’ve been an anticlimax, but it wasn’t, not yet, even though they played it note for note; and what’s more, the set erased any residual doubt that their punk-intense Violent Femmes rework “Gone Daddy Gone” and their encore-closing “Smiley Faces” are every bit as powerful.

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