Gnarls Barkley, Fallou Dieng, Deerhoof

Timothy Norris

(Click to enlarge)

Danger Mouse (front) and Cee-Lo Green: From go-go energized to bah-bah-bah harmonies

Hollywood Bowl, July 27

Cee-Lo Green, that rotund Romeo. Sure, he has short arms and a belly you can rent for kids to bounce off of, but he could be directing traffic outside the Hollywood Bowl and still look and sound sexy. His is a voice that cuts through the hills and makes a behemoth venue such as this seem as intimate as his bedroom and as holy as church. Heck, he could rework a novelty one-hit wonder like “Kung Fu Fighting” for an animated panda movie or write the theme song to snakes on a muthafuckin’ plane and still sound sexy. Or, as he called himself tonight, “sexay.”

After a set by first opening band Deerhoof, Senegal’s Fallou Dieng — a replacement for original opener and fellow Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour — got the audience pumped with what the man sitting behind me called “get the white people dancing” music. (This was a KCRW event, after all.) The genre is known as Mbalax, a blend of Afro-Caribbean pop, and Dieng brought a host of musicians, including a crazy-faced hand drummer with dizzying fingers, and a blue-caftan-wearing dancer whose moves were a cross between martial arts and early hip-hop.

Once the evening winds kicked in and the house lights went dim, Cee-Lo and Gnarls Barkley’s other half, Danger Mouse, entered the stage in identical gun-metal-gray suits. These two aren’t as mismatched as the title of Gnarls’ sophomore album, The Odd Couple, suggests. In the past, they’ve mimicked every famous couple in pop-culture history, from Wayne and Garth to Napoleon and Pedro. But the Bowl is a classy place, so the entire backing band wore bow ties. And while Danger Mouse is the silent partner/mastermind/DJ/keyboardist and Cee-Lo is the jovial, talky front man, their distinct musical approaches — Danger Mouse’s beats and rhythms, borrowed everywhere from ’60s pop to Italian movies, versus Cee-Lo’s neo-soul crooning — couldn’t complement each other any better.

The set list included much of the current album, from the go-go energized “Run (I’m a Natural Disaster),” where Cee-Lo gets to play the big bad wolf, to “Surprise,” an ode to California flower power with bah-bah-bah harmonies that dip into the Beach Boys’ waters. Then, Cee-Lo had to rain on our parade with the foreboding “Storm Coming,” before launching into “Crazy,” that loony, spiritual and ubiquitous anthem of summer 2006 that Cee-Lo jokingly said he was “contractually obligated” to sing. Hey, if “Crazy” nearly made them a one-hit wonder, it’s quite a wonder.

Gnarls’ cover of Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone” always seemed an odd choice and a waste of Cee-Lo’s talents, and their surprise live version of Radiohead’s “Reckoner,” one of the dullest tracks on In Rainbows, didn’t sound terribly exciting either. The duo are better at reworking their own material, such as the frenzied drum ’n’ bass “Transformer,” off their debut, St. Elsewhere, which the two morphed into a quiet stunner that had Cee-Lo seated the entire time. And with the Bowl being picnicking grounds, so was the audience for much of the night. Hope everyone enjoyed their cold cuts and all, but a crowd that waves wineglasses at a singer after he yells “Fuck yeah!” is still as un-rock-&-roll as you can get.

Cee-Lo’s quietest, and perhaps his finest, moment came when he walked the outer edge of the stage during “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul,” wailing about getting bad news, getting high and feeling low. The man can sing a suicide note and still sound uplifting and, yes, sexy too.

Sure, Gnarls have some silly, hippy-dippy gibberish sprinkled in their lyrics; on “Whatever,” Cee-Lo’s practically sticking his tongue out like a bullied school kid, telling people to leave him alone. But he’s one of the wisest men in the biz, full of between-song affirmations like, “This song is dedicated to all the survivors,” and, “If I had to describe Gnarls Barkley, I would say that it’s art imitating life. And what is life? It’s peak and valley, push and pull, give and take.” Cee-Lo Green is hip-hop’s answer to Chris Farley’s motivational speaker from Saturday Night Live, except he’s from the Dirty South, and he doesn’t live in a van down by the river.

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