I’m beginning to think this ticket isn’t happening.
Wait. An e-mail from my editor: It’s a yes, and Sub Pop says yes, and now I’m leaving my office and walking west down Southwest Alder, a clean, cool street heading into the hills. Through the bar windows, nondescript people shoot pool, say indiscernible things to each other. Around the corner, here comes the show. It’s the Shins, the first show of the tour, kicking off in the band’s (adopted) hometown. The $20 tickets are snatched up. The usual rock star suspects are standing in line. There goes the music editor of the weekly paper. “Hey.” His hand leaves his pocket.
The venue is the Crystal Ballroom, a two story building on a congested corner of downtown Portland, right where Powell—the street that divides the city in half—runs across the highway. Powell’s Books hums across the street. Homeless people ask me for money. The guy at the door wants to see my driver’s license, he stamps my hand.
Inside, face after face passes by; I finally see one familiar one: my friend, the recording engineer. And the band on stage is one of my favorites, the Minders. A brainy bespectacled professor (Martyn Leaper) orchestrates a punk-rock pop song, but the ceilings are too high, the sound too echoing, muddy, and the back of the room gets left behind. Until the band closed their set, breaking out XTC’s “Generals and Majors”, I’m too cerebral, and not well enough hydrated, to enjoy myself.
The wait is long and the Shins’ set opener is “Caring is Creepy”. The soundguy must be driving drunk because there’s screeching feedback and, thus, the band becomes distracted. I notice the keyboards, separate and interstellar. Feedback gone, each song sounds perfect, flawlessly executed. It’s the sound of a band who’ve been touring with the same setlist for over a year with no songs. It’s a band on autopilot.
The reverbed opening guitar chords of “Know Your Onion” come next, and then “Mine is Not a High Horse” all acoustic guitar and retro-synth. The feeling is recognizable and certain. Exhaustion. The band looks, sounds, and exudes tired.
James Mercer’s voice drowns underneath drums until he’s crooning a slow one, “New Slang” (during which I am embarrassed by my own thoughts of Zach Branff and Natalie Portman, and a scene in a Sundance sleeper with headphones and a waiting room). Girls are whispering in their boyfriends’ ears. They hang on arms and sway. This happens again during “Pink Bullets”.
(A friend tells me later that he sat at the side of the stage for most of the show, explaining why he didn’t notice the sound problems. I ask if James Mercer played bar chords most of the time. He says yes.)
The Brothers McMenamin, local boys with a chain of renovated brewpubs, have detailed clowns and jesters on the venue walls with brushes dipped in psilocybin and soy-based paint. On a good night, a band can make magic here. On most nights, trips to transcendent otherworlds are hijacked by sound gremlins, spilled drinks, offensive neighbors, and bored or boring bands. It takes something extraordinary in here to lift us all up.
It doesn’t happen for the Shins until late in the show. They’re playing “One by One All Day” and the instrumental refrain is going round and round and things feel locked-in and euphoric, like they might never stop.
The Shins take off; before we realize it we’re all caught in mid-flight.
Friends who caught the Decemberists show here a couple of weeks back—another sold-out crowd for a band that the rest of the country is beginning to love—reported in with glowballs of memories, references to Brian Wilson, murmurs of a Kate Bush cover. It was a show on a day when Colin Meloy and his band of hyperliterate pranksters found themselves victims of a crime. Equipment gone, stolen, the band’s borrowed instruments fresh with sales tags and friends’ good wishes. That sounded like a strange night, a little off, and unpredictable.
Not that I wish anything of the sort on the Shins. But I kind of want them back up on the highwire. For tonight, it’s 18 songs from two records plus a Magnetic Fields cover (“Strange Powers” from Holiday). It’s a set chiseled into concrete, from a band that could be flying.