Okay, I’ll admit it: In this instance, I am not an objective reviewer. The Shins are one of my favorite bands, and they have always had a special place in my music collection – not to mention in my heart. Their breakthrough and groundbreaking 2001 album, Oh, Inverted World, was my first introduction to the wonderful world of what happens when indie pop meets alt-country. It’s a perfect piece of pop rock, with just enough lyrical deft and musical heft to make it special.
When the Shins released 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow, I was worried at first that the stereotypical sophomore curse would wreak its havoc. It didn’t, and the album cemented the Shins as incredible indie pop stars to the world at large and to me in particular.
Then came 2007 and the not-quite-as-good Wincing The Night Away. Sure, the Shins were still smart, sophisticated and successful musicians, but their star had fallen just a bit in my eyes with their overreaching underachieving third album.
Needless to say, the Shins had a lot to live up to when they played at the Santa Barbara Bowl last Saturday night, at least as far as I was concerned. Could their live show overcome the wooden feeling of Wincing and recapture the infectious energy of their first two albums? Would new band member Eric Johnson shake up the Shins? Would James Mercer gaze longingly into my eyes during “New Slang,” or would that scene be confined to the realm of my fantasies?
Unfortunately, from the opening bars of “Phantom Limb” to the final bars of “So Says I,” the band proved that, while they are indeed every inch the musical geniuses I always thought they were, they are definitely not powerful performers. Nor was Mercer interested in making loving, longing eye contact with me.
For the most part, their show was as staid as their new album, although much like Wincing, it did have its bright moments, too. Highlights included rousing renditions of “Girl Inform Me” and “Australia,” a trilling, tambourine-heavy version of “Saint Simon,” a slowed-down performance of “New Slang” that really brought out the song’s melancholy beauty and an incredible cover of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” during the encore.
In between songs, the banter was mostly boring and involved Mercer and Johnson, with the exception of some sort of small foodstuff being tossed around the stage by drummer Jesse Sandoval and a brief tangential discussion of alcohol that culminated with Johnson asking everyone in the crowd to call out their favorite liquor before he proudly, and slightly slurringly, proclaimed, “Patrón tequila and Jameson. … Actually, I only do Jell-O shots. I only drink drinks that are gelatinous.” Furthermore, Mercer delivered the compliment that Santa Barbara boasts “good-looking folk, good-looking town.”
Regardless, the majority of the banter was generic concert fare, made worse by the incredibly long interludes between songs. While playing the songs, the Shins just stood on stage, woodenly working their instruments with only the slightest toe tap or head bob to concede that they were indeed performing for a packed amphitheater. Occasionally, someone would sip from a wine glass or pull from a red plastic cup, but other than that, the Shins were all business. A bra flew onto the stage, and they just kept plugging away, either pretending not to notice or really not knowing it at all.
Either way, the show lacked the kind of connection between musicians and audience that is required to create a truly powerful performance. Sure, the crowd was appreciative – even adoring – but without any onstage action to capture the crowd’s attention, the audience was left restless and relatively un-invested in what was going down onstage. It was like listening to a really incredible album at home: The music was pitch perfect, the harmonies were spot-on and the rhythms were as infectious as ever, but there was no reason not to talk, move around and generally disengage from the stationary figures on stage for the majority of the almost two-hour set.
All in all, I still love the Shins. But after last Saturday night, I think I’m going to keep loving them from the comfort of my own home. After all, if the experience of listening to them in my living room is going to be the same as seeing them live, I’d much prefer to hear the Shins playing somewhere where the beer doesn’t cost $6 a cup.