18 May 2009

The Shins - May 17, 2009

Last night I saw The Shins at the Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, NJ and nothing was how it seemed.

I will be honest about how I got into The Shins four years ago: it was a lonely night at an old Borders bookstore near my house when I suddenly caught a glimpse of the magazine "No Depression" with a gorgeous man on the cover. He caught my eye and wouldn't let go. I needed to see more of him immediately. I was familiar with The Shins' music already but had never seen them in person. I was just a casual listener. When I found out the man on the cover was James Mercer, the frontman for The Shins, I decided to buy the magazine, read the entire article, and immediately buy their albums, spending more time getting to know them.

Turns out their music was right up my alley, more than I even thought, and they quickly became one of my favorite bands. While I'm still not on the same level as some of their more diehard fans, I would consider myself a deep appreciator of their music - and lead singer. This was proven by our day long excursion to Montclair that included an hour drive, an hour in line outside with some interesting characters (more to come on that later), and four hours on our feet inside the general admission auditorium-like setup.

I would say one of the more exciting moments came before the concert when we were walking towards the venue and happened to pass by James Mercer and other members of the band on their way into a thai restaurant in the center of town. Mercer, dressed in a gray jacket, dark jeans, and aviator sunglasses, looked shorter and thinner in person than I expected but was still a stunner. Although he looked right at us, we didn't say anything and later I felt a little sad about not having the courage to take a picture with him.

ANYWAY, the folks in line near us later on were just a tad bit frustrating, feeling the need to comment on how many people were wearing Converse sneakers, discussing the age of everyone in line, and laughing like hyenas about 'groupies', fellow classmates, and Urban Outfitters. The only time I enjoyed eavesdropping came during a discussion of the venue when one of them said, "Is this place nice? Like Starland Ballroom nice?" Which I took to mean: "Starland Ballroom is in the masterclass of venues and this paltry place will not compare".

Strangely, the crowd, which looked to be at capacity, was full of high school aged youngsters whose mouths were gaping in lust for a band full of nearly middle-aged, balding gentlemen. While I love the irony and intrigue of that, I expected the crowd to be closer to a Coldplay type thing with the majority of folks in their mid to late twenties and a general sprinkling of all other demographics. It made me a little nervous to be one of the oldest people sprinting for a spot at the front of the stage and trying to squish up against girls half my age. There was even a little boy in front of me, nice enough, exclaiming to the person next to him that John Mayer is his "guilty pleasure" and that Eric Clapton is a "hack". Whoa.

When the show finally began, Delta Spirit (which I keep wanting to call "Delta Force" for some reason) opened with a fine set that seemed to go by in a decent amount of time. The lead singer had some real chops and they used trash cans ala Doug Funny to complete the sound on several of their songs. I was kept amused by the drummer making overly intense facial expressions and the bassist continuously pushing up his huge black glasses. Not to take away from the music though: they impressed me and I will probably mosey over to iTunes later and listen to their album in a quieter setting. I understood the common Americana strand that ran through this band and The Shins, a strand I'm glad they chose to enhance since this has always been one of my favorite qualities about Shins songs.

When the main act finally came on, it was a little anti-climatic but still exhilarating. Seeing James Mercer up close and personal after three hours of standing was reward enough for me, even if he looked like Jeremy Irons. The entire set was chock full of classic Shins songs that didn't stray much from what a casual listener would expect. "New Slang" fleshed out the encore, "Caring is Creepy" made an appearance, "Sleeping Lessons", "Phantom Limb", "Australia" - all from their latest, Wincing the Night Away, showed up, and my favorites "Gone for Good" and "Sea Legs" were luckily mixed in. "Gone for Good" in particular sounded excellent along with the jam session in "Sea Legs" and the very sexy slow beat they added into it.

Sadly, with all the remodeling they've clearly done to the interior of the building to build up a nicer ambiance, the Wellmont still lacks in sound quality. A couple months ago I attended The Black Keys concert at this venue and was stunned by the poor sound and odd distortion coming from the speakers. At the time I accredited it to a weird band set-up or an over abundance of annoying amps but when the same thing happened at this show, it was inexcusable. In the brief moments Mercer spoke to the audience - mostly about the documentary "Anvil" - I couldn't even understand what film he was talking about until the way end. Needless to say, all of The Shins brilliant poetry within their songs was generally lost in translation and it made many of the songs blend together.

While the sound and peculiar audience were minor letdowns, the overall experience was entirely worth it. I will say that my most positive thought after the concert was that James Mercer seems like a nice personality to spend a couple hours with. His quiet demeanor and shy banter is refreshing after seeing mostly extroverts in concert full of nothing but their own ego. Mercer had nice control over the band and tried his hardest to fix some of the sound problems throughout the concert by miming to the sound techs offstage to raise the volume on his mic and fix a couple wires on stage. He also hit some massive notes that sounded way better in person than they ever could on record. If I took anything new away from this concert, it is that The Shins can play a mean Beach Boys cover and James Mercer has a lot of emotions he's able to put inside a song and display in just the right, delicate way as to offset any other flaws within the performance. He is charismatic in his own unique way - and a much better singer than he gets credit for.

Also, I have to mention the encore - one of the best parts of the night. They played a song with the lyrics "I wanna do it, I wanna do it" repeated over and over again in the background while Mercer did his best Elvis/Buddy Holly impression with exemplary results. It almost sounded like a Chantilly Lace sort of vocal arrangement and it suited him perfectly. I was so happy the band both started and ended the four encore set with this. It capped off the subtle '50's vibe very nicely. I just wish I knew what song this was and how to find it.

Best line of the night? After joking around about "Anvil", Mercer stopped himself to get ready for the next song and said, "okay, let's get serious...no. Let's get melancholy". Marvelous display of self-deprecation, my favorite.

Better than Tom Petty? Not even close. Better than M. Ward? Eh. Better than Ari Hest playing songs from every month of the year? Definitely.

I will look forward to seeing The Shins after their next album comes out in a forum better suited for subtle performers and dynamic lyrical content.

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