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Sleeping Lessons, Tequila, and New Slang with The Shins

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

Terminal 5 was graced by The Shins with opener Real Estate for a night of dreamy music.

Sleeping Lessons, Tequila, and New Slang with The Shins

In this article…

I had heard of The Shins, an indie rock band formed in Albuquerque, New Mexico back in 1996, before the movie "Garden State" came out in 2004.  I wasn't too familiar with them, but I really like the sounds on their newest album Chutes Too Narrow.  But there was something about the way Natalie Portman passed those giant headphones over to Zach Braff and introduced his character to the band's defining single, "New Slang" that made the experience new to me, too.  Maybe it was the aura of the song from their critically acclaimed debut album Oh, Inverted World making me see the band in a new light.  Maybe it was just my giant crush on Natalie Portman.  Either way it also felt like I was listening to the group for the first time.

The Shins aren't the same group they were in 1996.  Only lead singer and guitarist James Mercer remains from that group, and the new lineup consists of Jessica Dobson (guitar), Joe Plummer (drums), Yuuki Matthews (bass), and Richard Swift (keyboards).  In a way, last night's show at Terminal 5 also marked my hearing The Shins for the first time all over again, since this new incarnation brought a different aesthetic to the older songs that made them popular.

I got to the venue with a friend just as opening group Real Estate, a New Jersey band, was finishing their set.  I had been to Terminal 5 twice before, and the place wasn't nearly as crowded either time.  Maybe it just seemed more crowded to me, because those other shows were also sold out.  But there was something about it that made the venue seem filled to the brim.  There was barely any room to maneuver through the crowd as everyone was eagerly anticipating the headline performance.

With everybody grappling for position, the lights finally dimmed around 9:00 or so and the group strolled out.  They opened with "Pam Berry", which is just a short interlude that transitions right into "Phantom Limb", the lead single off their 2007 album Wincing The Night Away.  The deep bass at the beginning of the track made it unmistakable to the crowd, and they hollered the lyrics along with Mercer.  They followed that up with a classic, "Caring Is Creepy", which excited everyone in attendance.  Hearing this one live made the beautiful instrumental loop in the middle sound even more alive.  Different instruments seemed to carry the track, but nothing took away from what makes it such a fantastic song.  There was a dreamy energy surrounding the sound, which seemed more upbeat than usual.

The show marked the third straight sold out show at Terminal 5 for The Shins, which says something about the band's staying power.  They hadn't put out a new album in over five years and had gone through a major overhaul, lineup-wise.  But this group has a dedicated following that has stayed with the band as it's evolved.  It's pretty easy to support a musician as talented as Mercer, whose voice can take you several different places.  At times, it's light and bouncy.  At other times, mysterious.  He can belt out notes way up in the register mixed with the strains that border on a scream.  He can also take it low, like during one of their new songs "Simple Song".  Towards the end, Mercer nearly goes baritone, which is such a contrast from the tenor notes he wails during most Shins tunes.  The audience acknowledged the versatility with hoots and shrieks, which made Mercer giggle a bit before continuing on.

The set list was a great mix of new and old.  They played songs from Chutes Too Narrow like "So Says I", "Saint Simon", and "Kissing The Lipless" while also playing some stuff off Wincing The Night Away like "Australia".  Much of the set consisted of new songs from Port of Morrow which the crowd ate up.  It's apparent that the band has reached a nice level of familiarity with each other, and they played well off one another all night long, and Dobson's female vocals (in addition to backup work provided by Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle of Dirty Projectors) added a different sort of harmony to familiar Shins tracks.  It should also be noted that Dobson kicked serious ass on that guitar.  Had I not been surrounded by trees of concert-goers, I wouldn't have been able to draw my attention away from her frantic and electrifying guitar-playing.  

The highlight of the night for me came when they played "Sleeping Lessons".  The song builds incredibly slowly on a single keyboard progression, almost moving at a snail's pace as Mercer slowly adds more live to the vocals.  With no percussion in the early going, Plummer moved around stage adding bells during different segments of the build up.  Finally everything starts to come together, and all at once an explosion of sound fills the venue.  The group extended the jam, repeating the first verse with the new tempo and energy, and the place was hopping.  One of my favorite songs was really brought to life better than I could have expected.

"New Slang" was the first song they played for their encore, and once the familiar percussion and sing-along melody came in, the entire crowd sang along.  The song seemed slowed down, and the inclusion of the keyboard definitely added a new and equally light element to the tune.  Take a look below.  

After this crowd-pleaser, they sang a new one called "40 Mark Strasse" and followed that up with a lengthy version of "One by One All Day".  Following the conclusion of that song, the band did their take on tequila shots, inspired by Swift.  He explained to the crowd that instead of the traditional salt and lime, the band's tradition is cinnamon and orange.  Mercer asked Swift to tell the crowd what it was called, and he replied with an inaudible muttering of words that cracked the rest of the band up.  He dedicated their final song to "Uncle Neil", and then proceeded to play "Helpless" by Neil Young.  Mercer pulls off a nice Young impression with his high, bubbly voice, and it was a nice, calm end to an evening packed with plenty of energy.

The show offered a healthy catalog of both old and new, and even the old had a newer sound because of the reworked lineup.  It truly was "New Slang" and I was happy to add it to my vernacular.

Let CHARGED.fm get you tickets to see The Shins in concert this summer

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