The Shins are big. This may not come as a shock to you, but it still does to them. Their latest album, Wincing the Night Away, reached #2 on the Billboard charts. They’ve played The Hollywood Bowl, Saturday Night Live, Letterman… even did Conan O’Brien right before their March 14th, 2007 concert at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
Yet in what they called, “The biggest show we’ve ever done”, The Shins seemed positively blown away.
James Mercer may be the songwriter/singer/guitarist of The Shins, but his single-minded focus on-stage lets the bass-and-guitar-switching duo of Martin Crandall and Dave Hernandez play off the crowd. Hernandez struck all the ‘rock god’ axe-man poses, whether on bass or guitar, often never holding one pose – or in one place – for more than a few chords. Crandall was the one chatting up the audience, with cracks about loving MSG (“I don’t care that they say it’s bad for you in Chinese food”), or the request by a pair of young lesbians to be married by Mercer (“Okay, who wants to marry me?”). Mercer did do the honors between the two women (without even knowing their names), but it was Crandall who encouraged them to, “keeping making out”. The newest Shin, keyboardist/guitarist Eric Johnson (of The Fruit Bats) was fairly reserved on stage, while Anita Robinson (of husband-and-wife openers Viva Voce), seemed more awed than anyone else when she joined the band on vocals and tambourine.
The Shins opened up with the first four tracks of Wincing the Night Away. The looping keys of “Sleeping Lessons” served as well as a concert opener as it did a record opener, particularly growing in size after Mercer’s crowd-grabbing lyric, “Off with their heads!” “Australia”, the second single off of Wincing, was a bit less bright, but a bit more powerful, that early on in the set. With its melodic wistfulness, the new album’s first single, “Phantom Limb”, had served as the perfect shift from their older material when it came out, and now in-concert, as the perfect shift to their earlier work.
With the following “Kissing the Lipless”, the opener of 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow, The Shins stayed largely away from Wincing material. In fact, the concert was a balance, with six songs each from their three full-length albums. The concert dipped to probably its weakest point with the too-saccharine “Girl Inform Me” and the too-keyboarded “Girl On the Wing” from 2001’s Oh, Inverted World, but then came “New Slang”. Probably still their best-known song to-date, thanks to its prominence in the 2004 movie Garden State (Natalie Portman’s character claimed that the song would, “Change your life”), “New Slang” was a quick crowd-pleaser, with the audience enrapt with its sad, indie-folk vibe.
The Shins returned to Chutes, with such numbers as the excellently sunny “Saint Simon”, before going back to the present day and Wincing. “Turn On Me” is the current record’s rumored third single, and when the band performed it live at Madison Square Garden (and only hours earlier on Conan), they proved why that’s the case, with the song’s catchy, jangly beats seriously engaging the crowd. The Shins went back to Inverted before the encore break, going into going off with their first LP’s opener, the also-Garden State-featured “Caring Is Creepy”, whose alt-psychedelia was only enhanced at Madison Square Garden (with new Shin Johnson on guitar, Crandall was left able to add some sliding keys to the number).
Chutes’ crowd-requested “Pink Bullets” ushered The Shins’ return, with the downbeat alt-road piece serving more as an anthem. They followed that up with a cover they’ve been playing this tour, 1972’s sloppy-rocking “Someone I Care About” by The Modern Lovers – the audience, unfortunately, was unresponsive when Mercer asked, “You all know The Modern Lovers, right?” And the band ended the night with an especially rockin’ “So Says I” – complete with Viva Voce’s Kevin Robinson joining the band (and his wife) on-stage, head-banging and body-hopping up while giving the people more cowbell.
It’s been three years since appearing on The Garden State soundtrack, and four since Chutes Too Narrow, yet in that time The Shins’ popularity has only grown. It was packed at the over-5,000-person-seating Theater at Madison Square Garden (which is a different venue than the next-door Madison Square Garden of Knicks and Rangers fame), with the seated area’s low-ceilinged roof making the place feel even more stuffed to the gills. The crowd was a wide and varied mix, from drunken twenty-somethings to middle-aged adults with their preteen kids, from solo middle-aged adults to excitable packs of teenagers. The Shins drew heavily from all quarters that night, more heavily than they would have hoped for, but more importantly, everyone had a great time.