[12 November 2012]
The Shins arrived in Houston on a Wednesday night, where they played a show to an enthusiastic crowd at a sold out House of Blues. This was a surprise to me, as I had no idea so many people still loved the Shins. Sure, plenty of indie rock fans will sing the praises of Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow, but even the latter album is almost a decade old at this point. And while nobody has exactly disavowed ‘07’s Wincing the Night Away or this year’s Port of Morrow, they certainly don’t seem to have inspired anyone to declare “this band will change your life,” either. Plus, there’s the nagging, lingering issue of the Shins’ frontman and songwriter James Mercer having fired the rest of the original band a few years back and claiming full rights and all credit to all sounds ever created under the band’s name.
Opening the show was White Rabbits. I had never heard any of the Brooklyn sextet’s music, but their set was full of upbeat material that touched on a bunch of different genres while staying firmly planted in indie rock. While their music was highly danceable, this wasn’t exactly the sort of crowd to get out and shake their behinds, so the band had to settle for nodding heads and appreciative applause throughout the set. It was interesting to watch the band members swap instruments from song to song. The first half of the set most often featured the band on either two guitars and a keyboard, or just three guitars. But in the second half one of their guitarists switched over to a second drumset. At first, this seemed like a superfluous move, as the band’s main drummer is a hell of a player. Somewhere in the second song of this setup, though, the second drummer started playing his own part, and the configuration began paying some dividends. Their set ended up being an interesting, pleasing mixture of songs that went from rocking to funky to acoustic ballads and everywhere in between.
The Shins took the stage shortly after 9:00 PM and opened with “Caring is Creepy”, an Oh, Inverted World classic that ensured the crowd would be into the show immediately. They followed this up with the Wincing standout “Australia” before launching into “Simple Song”, Point of Morrow’s first single. “Simple Song” is one of the few songs on the new album to really capture the classic Shins sound, and it was a set highlight. This was a high energy way to start the show, and it seemed to bode good things for the rest of the set.
Despite the strong start musically, after the first three songs one thing was clear. James Mercer doesn’t have a lot of stage presence as a frontman. He stands and he sings and occasionally says the name of the next songs or “thank you”, and that’s about it. But since Mercer is the unquestioned leader of the band, the rest of the group is careful to avoid upstaging him. This led to a stereotypical indie rock show where the band stands and plays and each person hardly moves from their appointed spot on the stage. Of the five backing band members, only guitarist Jessica Dobson was able to make a significant impression. Although she stood rooted to her spot at the far end of stage right, her fiery guitar solos and strong backing vocals seemed to indicate she was enjoying herself, and the crowd showed her a lot of love because of it.
Although, really, this crowd showed the Shins a lot of love, period, all night long. The audience was very positive for all the new material, including “Bait and Switch”, “The Rifle’s Spiral”, and middling single “It’s Only Life”. Of course, they were a little more enthusiastic for the older stuff, and the band cherry-picked a lot of their best material to fill out the set. Rockers like “So Says I”, “Know Your Onion!”, and “Kissing the Lipless” received huge cheers, while more easygoing pop songs like “Saint Simon” and “Phantom Limb” inspired big sing-alongs.
It was only late in the set that the audience’s energy began to flag a bit, as the band started extending songs and jamming a bit. The faux-soul of “Port of Morrow” already stretches beyond its welcome on the album, and watching the band noodle on for seven to eight minutes did the song no favors. The second-to-last song in the main set was the classic “New Slang”, which apparently was the tune everybody was waiting for, as several dozen people started making their way to the exits as soon as it ended. I scoffed at them at the time, but in retrospect, they may have had the right idea. The set ended with “Sleeping Lessons”, a decent song that also didn’t benefit from being jammed out.
At this point, the Shins were pretty much out of crowd-pleasers, so Mercer and the band decided that the way to reward the audience for sticking around was to begin the encore with two more songs from the new album. Nobody really wanted to hear that, and for the first time, the audience seemed to get restless. But the band redeemed themselves in the crowd’s eyes by finishing the night off with the rousing Oh, Inverted World song “One By One All Day.” But they couldn’t leave well enough alone, so they annoyed me by one last time by jamming out on the song for a few extra minutes instead of just ending it.