The Baghdad Theater
7 out of 10
It was almost two years ago that my fellow Shins fans and I were standing around the ornate Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon, scratching our heads and checking our ticket stubs to see if we were indeed in the correct time and place to watch The Shins play a set of their life changing songs. That was what the night had promised, even though the stage in front of us was occupied by only two recognizable members of the band (James Mercer and Dave Hernandez), and the two songs that began the show were brand new and unfamiliar (even to this B-sides collector!) Was this actually a James Mercer solo show, and everyone from the promoters to the ticket printers to the ushers at the venue mixed up tonight's event?
By the next couple of songs, it became clear that this was indeed a night for Shins music, even if half The Shins everyone had paid to see wouldn't be there. Gone were Marty Crandall's goofy-faced antics or Jesse Sandoval sweating-away behind the drum kit; they had been replaced by younger, more dutiful members from Fruitbats and Modest Mouse. In the end, however, it all still sounded like the whimsically wounded tunage we've come to expect from The Shins, so big whoop, right?
During that time and this, dispatches from The Shins tree fort have been few and far between. In addition to pink-slipping Crandall and Sandoval, Mercer wished Sub Pop Records (who had released the band's first three LPs to phenomenal success) a fond farewell in order to start his own record label, Aural Apothecary. Last year, The Shins released only one song, a cover of Squeeze's "Goodbye Girl," while Mercer busied himself with the impressive and catchy Danger Mouse collaborative debut record by Broken Bells. Whew-ish!
So, given all of this, what exactly does a James Mercer solo show entail? Songs Mercer recorded in his spare time? Tunes too intimate for Shins records proper? Bedroom ruminations on life, death, marriage, fatherhood, and independent record label stewardship?
Actually, a James Mercer solo concert is essentially James Mercer singing acoustic versions of songs he's already written. He is The Shins' chief songwriter, after all. And, as it turns out, James Mercer's previous material is just as catchy when performed alone with an acoustic guitar, a harmonica and a lone percussionist as it is with a full band behind him.
The $20 admission price, it turns out, was going to a worthy while cause, as this show was a charity benefit for Portland's Puddletown School, a Montessori-type institution focusing on child development through a confidence-building, independence-based learning curriculum So, not only did you get to see James Mercer perform solo, hang-out in The McMenamin Brothers' brilliant flagship retrofit (where, incidentally, years prior both One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and My Own Private Idaho had their world premiers), and nosh on popcorn and Terminator Stout while doing so, but your money went to a very worthy cause. So good, good.
The show opened with a chap whose name I didn't catch (it was a quiet night and the Missus and I were in the balcony). He was a member of a Portland-based band and the locals seemed well enough acquainted with him to cheer politely at the end of his quiet, yet stirring songs (image a mix of Codeine, Low and Iron And Wine tuned down to a whisper, and you get the idea). Wonderfully sad music, t'was.
Mercer opened his set with "Caring Is Creepy" from The Shin's debut LP, Oh, Inverted World. Man, has it really been 10 years since that album debuted?!? Here was a record that was a revelation when it came out, and it's single, "New Slang," was just bidding it's time 'til it shook Natalie Portman's soul and sold Big Macs.
Several more "classics" received stage time: "One By One All Day," "Girl Inform Me," "Young Pilgrims," "Australia," and, of course, "New Slang," as well as two of the best B-sides in The Shins cannon, "Sphagnum Esplanade" and "When I Goose-Step" (which this writer considers to be one of The Shins absolute best songs... ever!) Mercer even worked-in a ditty from Dark Night Of the Soul and Broken Bells' "The High Road." Simply, subtly phenomenal.
Mercer was in relaxed, confident form, his songs subtle but just as potent (possible more so) in the high-vaulted, yet intimate setting of The Baghdad Theater. All eyes and ears in this capacity crowd were on him, and Mercer and his music did not disappoint.
As for the encore? We only got one song - a teaser from the new Shins record, Mercer promised. It was a catchy enough song - in keeping with The Shins we've come to know and love. Honestly, after this acoustic taste, I can't wait to hear this song in it's full band, LP version.
Ya hear that, Mercer? Can't wait!