It's been 10 years since McDowell Mountain Music fest got started, and nine since Natalie Portman, as the prototypical "manic pixie dream girl" stated that The Shins would "change your life." In that time, McDowell Mountain Music fest has stayed its course, appealing to local music fans with a mix heavy on crunchy jam bands and a few carefully selected indie acts. The Shins, on the other hand, have enjoyed nearly a decade of divergence from a once-assumed path.
The songs of singer/songwriter James Mercer, the band's lone constant, have gone from the twee curiosities only a "hipster" like Portman's Garden State character would know about to genuine pop, beloved by screaming "woo girls," guys with backward baseball caps, and the drunk-and-high-at-the-same-time dude in a sleeveless shirt doing interpretive dances with his wrists while aimlessly bouncing into me.
It's almost unfair to bring up The Shins' Garden State reference -- or, at the very least it makes me look lazy -- but hear me out. Nine years ago Garden State represented a burgeoning lucrative model: the branding of "indie culture" as big business. Urban Outfitters was booming; Pitchfork was making careers (Arcade Fire, Funeral) and breaking them (Travis Morrison's Travistan). Zach Braff's maudlin film, scored to a soundtrack picked by Braff himself, was an intro to a new youth culture. It doesn't really feature a lot of "indie" music, even when you use the term as nebulously as Taylor Swift uses it. Aside from The Shins and Iron & Wine (covering The Postal Service) the compilation mostly features bad trip-hop, a great Nick Drake song, and big time alternative (Coldplay, and uh, Remy Zero). But it doesn't matter. The record sold because people liked thinking it was "indie," and they liked applying the term to themselves. The record sold because it was "indie-tastic."
I'm not bummed at Braff. The dude just picked a bunch of songs he liked. (I will sorta cringe thinking about the film itself, though. At 19 it felt pretty deep. Now, it seems pretty goofy.) I certainly don't blame The Shins, whose roots trace back to New Mexico cult acts like Flake Music and the razorblade-sharp pop punk of Scared of Chaka, for blowing up. Listening to the band's debut, Oh, Inverted World, it's clear that underneath the reverb and '60s pop affections, Mercer was penning hit songs as far back as 2001.
With each subsequent album, he embraced more and more "big pop" ideas, and as the band tore through the distorted guitar rock classic "Simple Song," from its 2012 release Port of Morrow, at Margret T. Hance Park as part of McDowell Mountain Music Festival 2013 last night, it was clear that Mercer's got no qualms living his ambitions. (Ambition doesn't really fit in with the Garden State format, does it?)
Backed by drummer Eric Plummer, keyboardist/vocalist Richard Swift, bassist Yuuki Matthews, and guitarist Nick Teeling, Mercer was in fine form last night, balancing taut Tears for Fears-style pop with cranked guitars, proggy theatrics with R&B-and-country toned weepers. The weather was beautiful, which Mercer noted. "I don't think I've ever been here when it's so gorgeous. I don't think we'll ever come back in the summer," he laughed. "Why would we?" The banter was mostly irreverent (Swift: "If only you could plug your guitar straight into Instagram, and everyone could wear headphones.") and occasionally baffling (I like Tucson as much as the next Phoenician -- or maybe more than the average Phoenician -- but it's not exactly "near" Phoenix, Shins dudes).
During "Phantom Limb," Mercer baited the crowd -- mostly decked-out in shorts, tank tops, and generally soaking up the good weather -- into an arena rock singalong, echoing the "ohhh-eee-ohh" refrain of the song. Over Matthews' fuzzy bass, it was a fun moment, with Mercer going as far as to lead the proceedings with a classic rock showman line: "I'm going to need you to help me out on this one!"
The Shins are clearly comfortable in their rock band skin, but that doesn't mean that the band's predicable. Slower moments like "September" showed off Mercer's command of a mournful melody, while "It's Only Life" showed off his scope, his normally careening falsetto tempered into a soft rock, AOR-ready croon until the sweeping chorus. The crowd was enchanted, dancing slowly, or making out in the grass. Ah, live music. "Kissing the Lipless" and "So Says I" both crackled with the electric energy captured on the album they come from, 2003's Chutes Too Narrow.
The band played "New Slang," the "Garden State song," retaining the song's meek spirit, but they also took another Oh, Inverted World track, "One by One All Day," and expanded it into an epic space rock jam, grinding on for six or seven minutes to close out their set. "Thanks so much," Mercer says, warping his guitar in the Dead-like intro before setting course for the center of the sun. For some kid, tripping on acid and sitting the lush green grass, surrounded by the sparkling expanse of downtown Phoenix, that might actually have changed his life.
Last Night: The Shins at McDowell Mountain Music Festival at Margret T. Hance Park The Crowd: Stoked about free Vitaminwater. Better Than: The long drive up the 101 to the Compound, the festival's former location. (Though honestly, I liked that place a lot.) Overheard: "If I had a ponytail would it look cute?!" -- A Very Concerned Woman Also: A small child was trying to sleep in a milkcrate. He'd had more than enough, thanks. 10 Year Anniversary: That's a diamond, baby.
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"The Rifle's Spiral" "Caring Is Creepy" "Simple Song" "Australia" "Bait and Switch" "Phantom Limb" "Saint Simon" "So Says I" "September" "Kissing the Lipless" "It's Only Life" "Know Your Onion!" "For a Fool" "New Slang" "Sleeping Lessons" Encore: "No Way Down" "Girl Sailor" "One by One All Day"