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."