Is there a rule about how much you can enjoy a concert if you're covering it in a professional capacity? The Shins
played the second of their three straight shows at Terminal 5 here in NYC last night, and James Mercer and crew put on a master's course of concert efficiency and how to please a rabid fan base. Everybody's got a handful of bands that are part of their concert bucket-list, and in the interest of full-disclosure, the Shins are only behind Arcade Fire and Radiohead on my list. Still, I'd be the first person to admit that they have sounded sort of flat in recent live performances like their Saturday Night Light
set from this year. Well, the Shins have their groove back and put on an hour and a half long set which moved the audience to tears and simultaneously rocked harder than you'd think the Shins were capable of.
Brooklyn synthpop band Chairlift
opened the night (as one of three different openers for this concert series. The other two were Real Estate and St. Lucia), and they immediately set the tone for how wonderful the evening would be. While a synthpop/new wave revival act still seems like an odd choice to open for the folk-pop of the Shins, Chairlift crushed their set so we won't complain. Lead singer Caroline Polachek has a gorgeous voice and she was backed by an impressive band which summoned the might of 80s electronic pop music in the most glorious way imaginable.
While I still have the same feeling I did when I reviewed their last album Something
, which is that they suffer from a lack of truly durable tracks, over the course of their set, I still found myself hypnotized by their music and these small complaints didn't really register until long after the show was over. Even if they only have a couple of stand-out tracks, those tracks really shone last night. Everyone remembers "Bruises" from its spot in an iPod commercial and Caroline Polachek actually segued it into a mini-cover of Modern English's "Melt With You" (openly acknowledging Chairlift's "New Romantics" roots). The set closed with Something
stand-out "Amanaemonesia" with much of the choreography from the music video intact. Polachek's dancing occurred intermittently throughout the whole set and was a highlight of a genuinely wonderful opening act.
The Shins took the stage at around nine, and for the next hour and a half, they commanded the undivided attention of the 5000 people packed into Terminal 5. Much has been made over the course of the last several months (before and after the release of the excellent Port of Morrow
) of the fact that James Mercer is the only remaining member of the original band (even I was one of those worriers initially). It's high time that conversation is laid to rest because the band has never sounded better, and we can say definitively, once and for all, that James Mercer is the Shins. The other members of the band acquitted themselves with panache (lead guitarist Jessica Dobson was especially impressive). But they all took a quiet place in the background to James Mercer, and for better or worse, that's the way it's meant to be.
The set began with a rousing rendition of "Kissing the Lipless" that segued immediately into an equally stellar version of "Simple Song." Even though there are only four Shins albums (and Oh, Inverted World
was released in 2001), every one of their albums is packed to the hilt with catchy singles, and the only moments where nearly the entire sold-out crowd wasn't singing along with James Mercer were on the tracks from Port of Morrow
that haven't been made singles yet. Still, I was impressed by just how many people in the crowd already knew all of the words to "The Rifle's Spiral," "It's Only Life," and "Bait and Switch." Beyond his instantly memorable melodies and retro folk-pop sensibilities, James Mercer has always been one of the greatest lyricists of the aughts, and a quick look around the crowd revealed just how connected the audience was with the words and music of a man who's first album came out when many in the audience were still in middle school (myself included in that last group).
What struck me the most about the evening is how fresh the band managed to make their oldest songs seem. The only album I've probably listened to more times than Oh, Inverted World
, but there were moments where it was like hearing "One by One All Day" or "New Slang" for the first time. I love the band at its most stripped-down and purely emotional, but seeing old classics performed with this new line-up added layers and textures to old songs that were never there before, and while I don't know if I prefer their sound one way or the other, I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that James Mercer isn't afraid to mess with the established classics of his canon. There were moments as well where Mercer abandoned his normal gorgeous melodies for something more visceral and raw, and it almost added an anti-folk quality to the performance which was revelatory. There are many more avenues of music that James Mercer could pursue and potentially succeed all while completely leaving the comfortable wheelhouse of the Shins.
Do I have any complaints about the evening? Perhaps. The band really made the audience wait for the encore. There was about eight minutes between the end of "One by One All Day" (which the Shins turned into an extended Grateful Dead-esque jam session to close out the regular set that blew our minds) and when James Mercer finally appeared on stage by himself to play a stripped down version of "Young Pilgrims." The audience kept screaming for an encore the entire time, but I'm guessing there are a bunch of people who woke up today unable to talk because Mercer made us wait so long. Also, the song choice for the encore was perhaps a little questionable. They ended out with several slower songs, officially closing out the evening with the titular track from Port of Morrow
. Real established crowd-pleasers like "So Says I" or "Sea Legs" would have made for a more climactic finish but that's just my personal taste. Other than that, the Shins proved why they're one of the most beloved indie bands of the last 10 years, and now I can't wait until I get to see them again in a month at Bonnaroo. If you have the chance, buy Shins tickets right now. It's worth it.