NEW YORK, NY—As I took my seat, I found myself in a much more intimate setting than I thought I would encounter at Madison Square Garden; there was a General Admission area up near the stage, which was already half full of devoted Shins fans who must have arrived there plenty early in hopes of snagging a spot in view of frontman James Mercer. Behind them was, of course, a full theater worth of seats, barely half full.
The lights dimmed right on time at 8:00 as the unannounced openers Viva Voce took to the stage. The audience seemed just as disappointed with their music as they were with the fact that there was an opening act keeping them from their beloved Shins. As their songs dragged on, the two-piece cutesy boy-girl act struggled to keep the audience’s attention.
The lights came back on to reveal a much bigger crowd—clearly the more savvy fans made a point of coming late. By the time the lights dimmed once more to the hypnotic drone of “Sleeping Lessons,” the theater was full to capacity. A dark curtain hung in back as The Shins took to the stage, a purple glow and hanging, round balls of light gave the feel of twilight on a summer night. The opening track to their 2007 release Wincing The Night Away slowly built to climax and burst into energy as they transitioned into “Australia,” the curtain behind them falling to reveal a backdrop of amoebas, palm trees and other Seuss-like shapes lit by a glow of rapidly changing colors. The audience, a mesh of young and old alike, bounced and swayed to the beat of the drum as Mercer belted out a confession: “Faced with the dodo’s conundrum/I felt like I could just fly/But nothing happened every time I tried.”
The band seemed just as happy to be with the audience as the crowd was to be with the band, often taking the time to survey the mass of fans before them. “This is the largest crowd we’ve ever drawn,” announced bassist Dave Hernandez as he tried to hide his astonishment. The crowd roared in response, and with that The Shins went on to perform song after song of beautiful hook-riddled harmonies, their subtlely skilled musicianship rarely found amongst bands so popular nowadays. They finished with a three-song encore, ending with a very dance-worthy version of “So Says I,” perhaps the biggest hit of their sophomore album Chutes Too Narrow.
The crowd slowly wandered back onto the street, leaving behind empty beer bottles, scattered popcorn and other evidence of merrymaking, but taking with them a head full of catchy, addictive indie-pop, the way it was meant to be heard. I wasn’t the only one humming quietly to myself on the subway home.