The Shins' new tour, a 12-city nationwide swing that's their first in over a year, got off to a soggy start Saturday night in Bellingham, WA. While most of the band's gigs will be in relatively intimate clubs, this concert took place in Western Washington University's central quad, Red Square. Outdoors. In the Pacific Northwest. Yes, it rained. A lot. And the blowing wind turned each droplet into a BB-like weapon to pelt the boys onstage.
The conditions were, as elegantly expressed by brainy frontman James Mercer, "cuckoo caca." "But luckily, Eric's superpower is breathing underwater," he quipped about nearly inundated keyboardist (and sometime Fruit Bat) Eric Johnson.
The weather, however, didn't dampen the crowd's enthusiasm. They greeted the lilting "New Slang" with locked eyes and ears like it would, in fact, change their lives as Natalie Portman said so convincingly back in 2004. And the galloping "Sleeping Lessons" got heads -- and the umbrellas covering them -- bouncing along to the beat.
The band's less familiar material, which took up a good portion of the 75-minute show, didn't evoke the same response. Their rendition of "Red Rabbits," an obscurity from 2007's Wincing the Night Away that's essentially a solo crooned by Mercer, was sloppy and uninspiring. Which was sort of understandable: "It's the first time we've done this one live," Mercer explained beforehand.
The quintet's new song "Double Bubble" (their contract with Sub Pop up, they're planning on self-releasing a Wincing follow-up this year) proved similarly underwhelming, bearing a less-than-arresting resemblance to the Police's Caribbean-accented new wave.
"Nothing at All," an overlooked and seldom performed B-side -- "I played it at a solo show the other night," Mercer explained, "but that's it" -- was an improvement with its rollicking electric guitar and synths, and Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer's beats and bassist Ron Lewis' rhythms joining in a hip-shaking good time (longtime drummer Jesse Sandoval and bassist Marty Crandall recently left the band). And, later, they sounded far more sure of themselves when Mercer's anguished vocals played off the vibrant melodies of "Phantom Limb" (key lyric: "whoa oh oh"), "Australia" ("la la la la") and the jaunty "Saint Simon" (ditto).
Their encore version of the Beach Boys' "Girl Don't Tell Me" was an inspired choice, even prompting a brief incidence of (crowd) surfing. The Shins then closed with "Those to Come," which recalled one of lead Beach Boy Brian Wilson's more ethereal efforts.
The Shins' sound has always been upbeat and gleeful and optimistic. And if they triumph over the just-back jitters at their first show in over a year, and shine through a sideways rainstorm, they'll have no trouble charming the pants off fans in the warm and cozy clubs on the rest of the tour. Heck, they may even change a few lives along the way.