To the east, the horizon pulses with the spectral haze of Denver’s city lights. A half moon hangs above 9,500 people who wait wedged between towering red rock monoliths that heave and curve out of the earth in an other-worldly, planetary scene, making it seem as if a band is about to take the stage on Mars.
Cue the rolling guitar chords and an emotional, catchy melody as the The Shins launch into “Kissing the Lipless” and James Mercer’s right-on-the-edge of everything vocalism brings everyone to their feet.
Mercer’s voice now warm, he lays down his signature crescendoing tenderness as the band kicks into “Australia” and an arid Colorado summer breeze rolls over the crowd in benign waves.
With “Simple Song”, The Shins’ live state becomes dimensional and raw. Guitars snap and weave through hard driving drums, squiggly synth riffs whine, harmonies erupt urgently, everything is unburdened as all this sound evaporates into the night air. Mercer beautifully overdrives his voice on “Simple Song” only to regain, in the reprieve, a gentle and just-psychedelic-enough groove that makes everyone “feel like an ocean made warm by the sun.”
Three songs in, Mercer takes a moment to say hello and mention that “it’s an honor and a pretty big deal” to be playing Red Rocks. A few more stars peer out of an almost cloudless sky, and the band unleashes “Bait and Switch”, and “So Says I”, loading up more scorching micro guitar solos and poppy harmonies that ground these pensive tunes in up-tempo goodness.
Yuuki Matthews’ heavy yet bouncy bass lines dance alongside the cavernous guitar wails of “Pam Berry”. Mercer continues to test the boundaries of his vocal chords, proving his (and the band’s) commitment to completely rocking every song. And herein lies the true magic of Red Rocks — this stage pushes everyone to a new level. Ripples of perfect tremolo wobble into the ether, Mercer gets absorbed as the crowd takes over on “Pam Berry”, filling Red Rocks with unified chants of “O-laa, o-eee” which leads Mercer to quiet and then joke, “You’re all hired.”
Energetically moving through songs, The Shins seamlessly sustain the vibe, playing “Phantom Limb” followed by the introspective yet sweet keys of “The Rifle’s Spiral”. The high-pitched, chiming tones of “No Way Down”, find camaraderie with the night’s lofty planetary essence as Jessica Dobson attacks her Jazzmaster guitar, extracting sweet, cosmic tones. The moon moves towards the top of the southern monolith and Mercer introduces “Sphagnum Esplanade” as a “psychedelic waltz.” The song’s philosophical lyrics allow his voice to ache with the right amount of angst while the softly disorienting light show turns spirals into circles, lavenders into whites.
Mercer prefaces another of his favorites, “It’s Only Life”, by explaining that it was written to help a friend who was going through hard times. The song showcases his folkier side and Dobson’s guitar work shines with more weeping, fuzzy tones, giving the song a subtly perfect sonic essence.
Mercer refers to “Mark Strasse” as an R&B number, but then tries to rescind the statement by saying, “I shouldn’t be so bold to say.” Regardless, this song too showcases lucid lyricism and restrained grace.
The obligatory but timeless classic “New Slang” is followed by “Port of Morrow”, from the recent album, highlighting Mercer’s universal range. The light show takes to the sky and many in the crowd turn away from the stage to look up and out of the amphitheater to find the moon still hanging near the tip of Ship Rock on its journey west.
Another classic, “Sleeping Song”, tears into night with climaxing treble before the encore brings out two additional musicians, Neal Langford and Martin Crandall, former Shins who join in for an all-out Red Rocks rendition of “Caring is Creepy”. The song ends with hugs as Langford and Crandall exit, making way for an intoxicatingly beautiful yet ballsy rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe”.
Not able to push things any further, The Shins ease the crowd back down with “One by One All Day”, which turns into a spacey jam of wandering guitar noises and percussive hits before rocketing into a spastic blast of noise to end the show.
The house lights rise and bounce off marooned folds and layers of red rock, making this whole place look either very earthly or more like outer space, and for a few moments, as everyone walks downhill, the difference doesn’t matter.
1. Kissing the Lipless
3. Simple Song
4. Bait and Switch
5. So Says I
6. Pam Berry
7. Phantom Limb
8. The Rifle’s Spiral
9. Saint Simon
10. No Way Down
11. Sphagnum Esplanade
12. Mine’s Not a High Horse
13. It’s Only Life
14. Know Your Onion!
15. Mark Strasse
16. New Slang
17. Port of Morrow
18. Sleeping Lessons
19. Caring Is Creepy
20. Breathe (Pink Floyd)
21. One by One All Day
Martin Balgach’s poetry and criticism have appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Cream City Review, Fogged Clarity, Opium Magazine, Rain Taxi, and other journals. His chapbook Too Much Breath is forthcoming from Pudding House Publications. More of his work can be found at www.martinbalgach.com.