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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Gnarls Barkley @ The Briggs and Stratton Big Backyard

June 26, 2008

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Limited by his dense, Buddha-esque frame, Cee-Lo isn’t particularly limber, but that doesn’t stop him from dancing. In concert with Gnarls Barkley, Cee-Lo falls back on two moves. The first is pretty traditional: Flashing his bright, Al Green smile (the perfect complement to his bright, Al Green voice), he rides the balls of his feet and shimmies sideways across the stage, always to amused cheers. The second is less scripted: When he gets particularly worked up, he strangles his dwarfed microphone stand with his bloated hands, throws his head back and convulses violently, exorcizing every last churchy squeal from his throat.

A singing rapper, a loveable madman, a smiling depressive: Cee-Lo is one of pop music’s most paradoxical figures. And with Gnarls Barkley, he’s found the perfect outlet for his split personalities: a band that appeases both the old-fashioned entertainer and the closet freak inside him. It was the old-fashioned entertainer that dominated Thursday’s show, the beaming singer who flaunts his love of life even when singing songs about ending it.

Gnarls Barkley’s albums bustle with modernity, thanks to producer Danger Mouse’s frantic beats. In concert, however, Danger Mouse trades his laptop for an organ and drops the choppiness of his recorded compositions in favor of smoother, live-band arrangements. On Gnarls Barkley’s records, passages of ’60s soul, psychedelia and go-go hint at kitsch, but when filtered through live players, these retro sounds are stripped of all irony. Even the band’s signature costumes (for this show, 1950s Buddy Holly-styled) are a genuine throwback to entertainment’s past, a time when bands like the Four Tops would never consider taking the stage without coordinating first.