As you may have noticed, all the cool kids are in Austin, TX this week for the annual SXSW music festival. But not the Shins! Those indie mainstays have opted instead to continue their cross-country tour, which brought them last night to a sold-out Theater at NYC’s Madison Square Garden. It’s easy to see why they skipped SXSW: Their superb new album Wincing the Night Away recently sold an impressive 118,000 copies in its first week, and three years after Zach Braff’s Garden State shout-out, they remain one of very few indie bands to have truly broken into pop culture’s mainstream. These days, the Shins need a cavernous venue like the MSG Theater just to fit a fraction of their fans.
Even the band seems surprised at how big they’ve gotten. Taking the stage after a face-melting opening set from bluesy married duo Viva Voce (think a backwards White Stripes), the Shins played slightly stiffly at first — as if they weren’t quite sure how to rock a thousands-strong audience with such elliptical, introspective songs. “Wow, Madison Square Garden,” frontman James Mercer marveled after a few patter-free selections from Wincing. “Even my parents have heard of this place!” It was, he said, the largest crowd they’d ever played as a headlining act. “It’s an honor to be here with so many goddamned people,” bassist/keyboardist/goofball Marty Crandall chimed in a bit later. “We never thought we’d achieve [this].”
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But the quintet hit their stride in time. As soon as they hit the material from their first two albums, in fact, they loosened up immeasurably. A vaguely reggaefied spin on “Girl on the Wing,” a grungy “Saint Simon,” and a fast-and-furious “Turn A Square” all positively killed. By the time they returned to the new album, the Shins were playing with a fresh, raucous edge. Lead guitarist Dave Hernandez even leaped up onto an amp and struck a cocky rock-star pose for “Turn On Me.” (“Is he doing a Sid Vicious impression?” my concertgoing companion aptly wondered.)
Mercer’s lyrics can be notoriously difficult to parse, but as the lengthy set progressed his words often took on a sweetly ironic resonance. Singing about a “shut out, pimpled and angry” adolescence in “Know Your Onion!” — one of the songs we fans first fell in love with, six years back — he couldn’t have sounded more giddily confident. Later, after leaving the stage and coming back for an encore, the band ended the evening with a rollicking “So Says I”: “This is nothing like we’d ever dreamt/Tell Sir Thomas More we’ve got another failed attempt.” It’s hard to know where the Shins will go from here, but one thing’s for sure: last night’s attempt was anything but failed.