THE SHINS @ RED ROCKS AMPHITHEATRE | 5/29/12
Fewer than thirty seconds into their set and the Shins already needed a do-over. Playing Red Rocks could make any band nervous, but its grip is especially tight on one for whom U2 were gods growing up and for whom "this Red Rocks thing is really big..." So, when the drums entered awkwardly and a bit too eagerly, frontman James Mercer threw in the first towel: "Okay, let's start over. Let's do it." And, while the moment marked a mistake, it might also have been the only one for which the Portland-based quintet actually loosened its own grip.
All buttoned up and tucked in, the indie mavens offered up a polite and gentle batch of songs. Through the entire first third of the set, the Shins played soft, if consistently lovely melodies to a legion of mild swayers and head nodders -- a crowd that was considerably more active than the act entrancing them. Early in the night, the group fit awkwardly into its surroundings, seeming to wither under the spotlight rather than embrace it or even acknowledge it.
While Red Rocks raises high the rock gods, it does not take kindly to church mice. On radio ruler "Simple Song," Mercer's characteristically charming falsetto began to break, forcing him to lower the occasional note as synth and fog distracted his audience and his Elvis Costello leg shuffle propelled him through it. But, luckily, as the sky darkened and the reefer stench thickened, so did the band's blood.
The Shins have no greater strength than their sing-a-long melodies, and, live, they can be so stunning, so fey, that the resulting power surge is as quietly impressive. No band can rope someone into caring quite as easily as the Shins -- or worm into their subconscious so easily or thoroughly (see the rapid succession of "Saint Simon," "No Way Down," "It's Only Life" and "Know Your Onion!"). As the crowd's individual vocals swelled into a collective echo, Mercer's coos of "la la la la la" were overtaken by soaring moans, brassy guitar solos and eerie organ synth.
Finally, a little past the halfway mark, the moment came that the woman in the Garden State shirt we saw before the show had paid good money to experience, when the Shins abandoned its inner Peter Parker and summoned the superhero sound it takes to channel Red Rocks undaunted. Gone was the overtly subtle crooner and his merry band of melody-makers, replaced just a little too late with smooth operators, genuine angst, bold echoes and a hand reached firmly out to the audience.
While the foreboding ambiance of "The Rifle's Spiral" evoked a Cure phase onstage, "No Way Down" grew into a funky, broke-down stomper -- a button-loosener, if the Shins ever had one -- before transitioning into the spooky spaceship synth of "Sphagnum Esplanade." While borrowing heavily from Port of Morrow, the Shins ignored none of their witty, whimsical back catalog in pursuit of solid pacing. They never found it, but they did find release, from new baby-maker "40 Mark Strasse" through a stripped-down "Caring Is Creepy," out one end of an ambitious Pink Floyd cover through the end of the band's twenty-song set.
As the surging chorus of "New Slang" slimmed to a silent sing-a-long, the band cracked its first (and only) joke. "Incredible," Mercer complimented the crowd. "You're all hired!" Well, kind of. "Actually, we should probably talk about the rate. There are a lot of you, and that's expensive."
The Shins know how to pick their openers, both of which spoke directly and energetically to a crowd waiting for the sun to set. Fellow Oregonians Blind Pilot opened the night with an artful, nostalgic take on anthem rock that translated negative sound space into an impromptu backyard party. Much of the early evening crowd took to its feet quickly and stayed there for spritely Seattle natives the Head and the Heart, who clearly drew some of their own fans to the sold-out show.
The band's self-titled album, remastered recently on Sub Pop, limits the group's setlist length but encourages the members to draw out the nuances of their back catalog, which is full of whimsical acoustica and lush melody. No shortage of fans had already memorized the words, and the sing-a-longs started well before the night's headliners.
The set proved to be the Head and the Heart's final stop on tour with the Shins, which induced a sad so-long to the headliner and its fans and a dramatic exit from drummer Tyler Williams. The band left the stage amid crashing symbols.
Personal Bias: Every once in a while, I worry I've aged out of my captivation with the Shins' first two albums. The finale of last night's performance proved that part of me wrong.
By the Way: The number of people who skipped the openers, Blind Pilot and the Head and the Heart, in order to pre-game and listen to the recorded Shins in their car before the actual Shins came on was astounding. It's like they ordered their Shins sandwich with extra Shins.
Random Detail: The Red Rocks trivia screens -- which are awesome -- could probably get a better photo of Thom Yorke.
The Shins Red Rocks - 5/29/12 Morrison, CO
01. "Kissing the Lipless" 02. "Australia" 03. "Simple Song" 04. "Bait and Switch" 05. "So Says I" 06. "Pam Berry" 07. "The Rifle's Spiral" 08. "Saint Simon" 09. "No Way Down" 10. "The Sphagnum Esplanade" 11. "Mine's Not a High Horse" 12. "It's Only Life" 13. "Know Your Onion!" 14. "40 Mark Strasse" 15. "New Slang" 16. "Port of Morrow" 17. "Sleeping Lessons"
18. "Caring Is Creepy" 19. "Breathe" (Pink Floyd cover) 20. "Pressed in a Book"
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music