Have Mercer

The attendees at the February 15 Shins/Viva Voce concert constituted one of the most polite capacity crowds since the adjective "modern" was first affixed to "rock." Sure, there were plenty of folks who decided to wriggle their way to toward the front of the stage long after they should have, forcing those who'd already staked out spots to either stand their ground or make room for the latecomers. But the vast majority of these usurpers said, "Excuse me" as they squeezed past, or offered some other rationale for their brusqueness -- like the guy who trailed behind a buddy announcing to all within earshot, "He's looking for his cousin." In that sense, the Fillmore felt more like a giant Starbucks than a concert venue for the span of the show -- and that was appropriate given the tasty blend offered by the top bands on the bill, both of which are currently based in the coffee-loving Pacific Northwest.

In Westword's current Viva Voce profile, vocalist/guitarist Anita Robinson, who partners in the band with her husband, drummer and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Robinson, notes that people generally have a better sense of her instrumental abilities after seeing her perform live -- and she proved this point early on in the duo's set. Following a tender snippet from "We Do Not Fuck Around," a highlight from the act's latest CD, Get Yr Blood Sucked Out, Anita embarked on a full-out skronk showcase. Over the course of ten minutes or so, she made her ax wail, scream, moan, bay and lots more, leaving many audience members who were unfamiliar with the group positively slack-jawed. "I didn't know girls could play the guitar like that," one guy announced. Granted, Viva Voce's time in the spotlight had its rough moments, mostly owing to the ol' opening-act-gets-stuck-with-second-rate-sound issue. But when Robinson uncrated a double-neck guitar and began shredding Cheap Trick-style, she proved to be a genuine Chick Nielsen. Anyone who doesn't list her among the contemporary scene's best guitarists either hasn't heard her or isn't paying attention.

Twenty-five minutes later, the Shins greeted the throng quietly, via the burbling intro of "Sleeping Lessons," the lead track on the combo's new CD, Wincing the Night Away. But when lead singer James Mercer (whose rumpled dress shirt and tie caused him to resemble an accountant cutting loose after a long week) limbered up his pipes and unleashed his trademark warble, the effect was wonderfully invigorating. In contrast to Viva Voce, Mercer and company were blessed with a tremendous mix -- perhaps the best I've ever heard at the Fillmore -- that showcased the combo as a whole. Guitarist Dave Hernandez, bassist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval always deferred to Mercer, who writes and sings all the tunes, but they did it so cheerfully that there was never a sense that they felt creatively squelched. Far from it: There was more joyful hopping on view than on breeding day at the bunny farm.

The song list ranged across the outfit's three Sub Pop long players: "Know Your Onion!" and (of course) "New Slang," from 2001's Oh, Inverted World; "Kissing the Lipless" and "Gone For Good" from 2003's Chutes Too Narrow; and a blissful "Phantom Limb" (the lead single from Wincing) featuring Anita offering the same sort of background vocals she does on the disc. Along the way, Mercer prompted fan participation in a charming way, by asking ticket-holders to "la-la the shit" out of "Saint Simon," and repeatedly expressed delight that the Fillmore was sold out. Given the Shins' rising-star status, anything less would have been unlikely. But Mercer vividly described a previous date at the Fillmore when the room was bisected by a giant curtain to make the modest turnout seem less embarrassing. And before encoring with a surprisingly credible rendition of the Modern Lovers' pre-punk chestnut "Someone I Care About," he and his fellows waved around dorky trophies given them by Fillmore staffers to commemorate their achievement, acting as delighted as champion Little Leaguers who'd started the season at the bottom of the heap.

How polite of them. -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts