Like a lonely prophet with a poetic touch, James Mercer was the focal point of the Broken Bells show Sunday at the Moore Theatre, but he and artist-producer Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse) proved that their act is greater than the sum of its parts.
Mercer (better known as the frontman of indie rock group The Shins) belted, cajoled and even whistled for a full house, singing with an emotional urgency that sometimes verged on anger. Dressed more like a college professor than a rock star, Mercer clutched his mic like it was a life preserver, taking to heart the words in his song “Holding on For Life.”
A less-charismatic Burton plucked away at his bass and even took a few turns playing drums, but seemed lost in the music. He never spoke to the audience and seemed content to let Mercer command the stage.
Nevertheless, Broken Bells managed to wow with its set of serious power ballads and up-tempo rock melodies. Mercer’s edgy croon and magnificent vocal range provided a through line for the duo’s songs, which range from ’60s groove to more traditional indie rock, and Burton’s rhythmic bass anchored his band mate’s soaring falsetto.
“We’re doing pretty well for a Sunday night,” said Mercer during one of the few times he addressed the audience directly. “Let’s forget about work tomorrow.”
For patrons not distracted by dancing lights or the celestial images projected behind the musicians, Mercer’s compelling lyrics added a darker edge to the evening.
“I’ve been all around the world but I’ve got nowhere to go,” he sang in ”Leave It Alone.”
Similar sentiments of loneliness, doubt and fear pervade most of Broken Bells’ songs. Mercer oscillated between heartbreaking melancholy and passion-tinged anger, wailing that “this is a day without a trace of reason” during “Citizen,” part of the evening’s three-song encore. Despite the music’s dark side, Mercer ended the last few songs with an earnest smile. The energy in the room was positive and palpable.
By the time the group had played ”October,” a hit from its first album and the last song of the night, Broken Bells had proved that it isn’t simply two musicians with good track records, but a complete entity with dimension and depth.