And so it was that in the year 2007, on April 15 (tax day, of all days), in a beautiful old Art Deco theater in downtown Los Angeles, indie rock ascended to its long-sought throne. The members of the Shins, those Garden State life-changers, sophomore-album masterpiece-makers, and Billboard chart-toppers, arrived on stage for their coronation. And the crown fit perfectly. The new kings brought it, and their loyal servant-fandom was not left disappointed.
That was a relief to me, because the last time I had seen the Shins, opening for Belle and Sebastian at the Hollywood Bowl last summer, they couldn’t have been less impressive. In retrospect, the band was obviously using the gig simply as a chance to test out new songs’ sea legs. (Those songs ended up on Wincing the Night Away, which even though it debuted at number one is arguably the weakest of the three Shins albums.) At the Bowl, James Mercer and company seemed scared of their huge surroundings, unsure of their new material, and just not too thrilled to be there.
But at the Orpheum it was different. The Portland, Oregon-based band owned every inch of the place, from its huge, brightly lit stage up to the vaulting balcony. Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling twinkled over a darkened stage as the band entered to the recorded arpeggios of “Sleeping Lessons.” When that song made its jump to grandiosity toward its end, the lights came up and a curtain came down behind the band to reveal a massive rendering of Wincing‘s cover, like a flag flying proudly, declaring victory.
Throughout the night, the Shins were routinely joined by Anita Robinson of openers Viva Voce, adding backing vocals and tambourine. She showed up for “Phantom Limb,” “New Slang,” and other tunes. Most of the highlights of the night came from 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow: a raucous “Kissing the Lipless,” an energized “Gone for Good,” “Mine’s Not a High Horse,” “Saint Simon,” and “Turn a Square.” And, in what’s becoming a set staple for the Shins, they put in a spot-on cover of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe”; who knew indie-poppers could get so psychedelic?
Amid a four-song encore, the Shins performed a radically re-realized version of “Caring Is Creepy.” It was done acoustic, all shuffling and folky with Mercer on harmonica. And the band closed things out in triumphant fashion with the spiky, angular tempo changes of “So Says I.”
Okay, so it might not have been U2 at Red Rocks or the Beatles at Shea Stadium. But for one night at least, the Shins seemed worthy of the term “life-changing.” Worthy to be movement poster boys. Worthy of all the regal praise they could get.