Concert Review: The Shins At The Gibson Amphitheater, Tuesday October 2nd 2012
Written by Alyson Camus of rocknyc.com
Note video above of The Shins’ “New Slang” is from our archives and obviously not from the concert reviewed below, but we thought we include it anyway, ’cause we LOVE this song!
There is only one person in common between the band I saw in concert at the Orpheum a few years ago, and the band I saw on Tuesday night at the Gibson amphitheater: James Mercer. I saw the Shins in 2007, and at the time, it was difficult to say whether he was the real frontman or not, rather they looked like a bunch of happy guys playing and singing together. But last night it was a little different, and it didn’t matter if the new lineup played songs from the first Shins albums when the band was totally different. There was no doubt James Mercer was the Shins, the songs were totally his, but his new and excellent back-up band was giving them a new life.
Attempting to describe a Shins’ song is a very difficult task, all of them are delicate, wide-eyed bright pop songs and they occupy a special place in my music world. Songs can be nostalgic, angry or reflect any specific human feeling, but a Shins song has always this fresh sound, exulting a bold innocence, throwing some ooo-ooos or lalalala in the middle of the most cryptic lyrics, touching at the fragility of life and its cruelty but finding beauty everywhere, running free in the high notes, and nesting in your brains for years.
On stage, James Mercer was not very chatty, but he seemed relax and in charge, appearing not melancholic and passionate like a Conor Oberst, not talkative and playful like a Wayne Coyne, or certainly not pissed off like a Jack White – to name a few artists whom I saw recently or were in the news. He looked like a regular guy who could have totally blended with the crowd, but a regular guy with an unique talent for writing catchy power pop songs or quiet ballads, and lyrics that keep you scratching your head for months, ‘It would be too boring if it was real straightforward. It’s a selfish thing. I want it to sound interesting to me,’ he explained in an interview. But on Tuesday night, he was also very efficient, rearranging certain of his songs, stretching their melodies into long psychedelic numbers, and acting like a discreet but fierce frontman, not even physically occupying the center of the stage but attracting everyone’s attention.
They started with a couple of oldies ‘Kissing the Lipless’ off ‘Chutes Too Narrow’, and the well-loved ‘Caring is Creepy’ off ‘Oh Inverted World’, before playing any of the new songs and lighting up the background representing the cover of ‘Port of Morrow’ behind them. If the triumphant ‘Simple Song’ was the perfect introduction to the new material, the rest of the evening was well balanced between new songs and a few of each album, including crowd pleasers such as ‘New Slang’ and ‘Phantom Limb’ off ‘Wincing the Night Away’, during which James Mercer encouraged the crowd to perform the ooo-ooo-ooos, and thanked us with a warm ‘Thank you, that was beautiful’. It was interesting to see how the new band, which has only been around since the latest release, was able to play the signature songs with ease and fun, bringing a new twist here and there. Especially guitarist Jessica Dobson (last time I saw her she was playing with Beck) looked totally in charge of her numerous pedals, and was often harmonizing on vocals with James Mercer. The rest of the band, Joe Plummer (Modest Mouse, Black Heart Procession, Mister Heavenly) on drums, Richard Swift on keys, Yuuki Matthews (Crystal Skulls) on bass guitar, and an additional musician on various instruments (even a violin on a few songs) were bringing all the Shins songs totally alive, with a passionate energy.
There were some nice keyboard additions by Richard Swift on several tracks, ‘Australia’ sounded faster, bouncier and rockier, and ‘Port of Morrow’ had dark moments but progressed into a thunderous drama. After a change to an acoustic guitar, ‘New Slang’ was the Nathalie-Portman-campfire moment – I know it’s getting old, but people are still mentioning it – with cool arrangements involving some delicate bells. From croon to falsetto, Mercer’s vocals were as clear as usual, and have you noticed how his range has even extended on the last album? Ending the set with ‘Sleeping Lessons’ was an occasion to wander into a more complex and pseudo-psychedelic shoegazing than the original song, with Dobson’s forceful guitar and Mercer even going up front, to the edge of the stage,… although no stage diving, be reassured, may be next time? Or not.
People screamed and clapped a very long time to be sure they would come back for an encore of three songs including ‘No Way Down’, but I am sure ‘Marisa’ was the title written on the setlist; would James Mercer have renamed the song after his wife? Ha that’s cute… ‘The ‘old’ earworm ‘One by on All Day’ was the last one they played, but it was again time to totally revamp the tune in some tempestuous and distorted musical meditation around the melody of the song, ending into crowd clapping, stretching the 4-minute song into a 8-minute one.
‘This place is huge, did you notice?’ said James Mercer at one point of the show, in an attempt to communicate with the crowd and before introducing the new single ‘It’s Only Life’. But why would he need to communicate with us when his music does it so well?
Kissing the Lipless
Caring is Creepy
Know your Onion
Bait and Switch
The Rifle’s Spiral
It’s only Life
So Says I
Port of Morrow
Marisa/No way Down
One by on All Day