Thanks to the smashing success of one irresistible song and its members' fondness for matching get-ups, post-modern soul duo Gnarls Barkley enjoys a reputation as something of a good-time party band. But the song - "Crazy" - isn't so much about getting wild as getting seriously ill. And the plaid pants and gold blazers that Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton and Cee-Lo Green wore at the Wilbur Theatre Wednesday night - the band was a model of mid-century campus chic in sweater vests and bow ties - hardly disguised the terse, anxious vein that courses through Gnarls Barkley's charismatic tunes.
The tension between the songs' groovalicious surfaces and their dark undertow colored the show complicated. Add to that the challenge of transposing Danger Mouse's brilliantly cobbled, sample-heavy tracks for a feisty live ensemble onstage, and it's easy to understand how the concert wound up feeling wilder, and at the same time smaller, than Gnarls Barkley's shimmering recordings.
Backed by a flailing five-piece rock band, the duo played shorter, brasher versions of songs from its two albums, 2006's "St. Elsewhere" and this year's well-titled "The Odd Couple." Cee-Lo, a stout powerhouse of a soul singer, shivered and shook at the microphone. Danger Mouse, the silent mastermind, sat hunched over his keyboards, occasionally straightening to bash a tambourine against his leg or play marimba.
And so it went for around 75 scintillating, unsettling minutes, from the fierce, surf's-up opener "Charity Case" and the gripping go-go of "Going On" to a fierce rendition of "A Little Better" and a frantic take on "Run (I'm a Natural Disaster)."
Unable to re-create the state-of-the-art sonic details of their records, the band wisely opted to put on a rock show, complete with guitar heroics, manic beats, and one downright petulant vocal turn on "Whatever," a paean to disenfranchised youth.
While the upbeat tunes were laced with alienation and dread, the ballads were gloriously bleak. A mournful, echo-drenched performance of "Who's Gonna Save My Soul" opened the encore set, and in a spot-on programming move the group followed with a cover of Radiohead's "Reckoner" - spry and swinging and still somehow as haunted as the original.
Rising Brooklyn ensemble