Generally (and generationally) speaking, middle age and nostalgia come to us all, sooner or later — even Millennial indie-rock fans. In 2022 alone, Wilco played a series of spring shows commemorating 20 years of their epic “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” Peaches performed “The Teaches of Peaches” in full in a summer tour meant to (belatedly) celebrate two decades of the “Fuck the Pain Away” album, and Broken Social Scene is set to tour this fall to in honor of 20 years of their beloved sophomore outing “You Forgot it in People.”
Add the Shins to that bunch, as they took to the stage at Radio City Music Hall on Aug. 23 to celebrate the 21st anniversary of their debut album “Oh, Inverted World.” Lead singer, rhythm guitarist and songwriter James Mercer is the only current member of the band who was actually around to record “World,” as he effectively fired the rest of the band in 2009 and has rotated different members in and out since. But Mercer’s current group — guitarist Mark Watrous, bassist Yuuki Matthews, keyboard player and multi-instrumentalist Patti King, and drummer Jon Sortland — is so energetic that even performing a well-worn record sounded not only fresh, but a bit daring.
While subsequent works have pushed Mercer’s songwriting in even bolder directions, “World” was a quirky start, filled with hushed bedroom pop and sketches of songs searching for deeper analysis. A short record, with only four songs exceeding the three-minute mark, it includes two of the band’s biggest hits: Opener and fan favorite “Caring Is Creepy,” as well as the hushed, haunting acoustic number “New Slang,” aka “the song Natalie Portman plays for Zach Braff in ‘Garden State.’” Ultimately, the album proved more indelible than the film, and served as a launchpad for the band’s growth in both sound and fanbase.
Seconds into the start of the show, “Caring Is Creepy” took on a surprising new life, courtesy of Sortland’s drumming. Even on a small kit, he played with a level of bombast that evoked the Who’s Keith Moon — or even the Muppet Animal. With the exception of a few ballads during the night, Sortland kept things moving to the brink of exhaustion, as Watrous kept pace with punchy solos that played off of the frenzy. While purists might have been annoyed that the once-wistful anthems were now charged-up rockers, the band’s energy was infectious, and a great sonic bed for Mercer.
The head Shin’s voice sounded better than ever, even on some of his biggest falsetto moments, and he was unafraid to mix things up too, switching vocal runs up on even the biggest singalongs. Mercer seemed particularly delighted by some of the modified live arrangements, including turning the deep cut “Your Algebra” from a sparse acoustic number into a haunting full-band stomper. The song was also aided by the vocals of opening trio Joseph (Natalie Closner Schepman, and twins Allison and Meegan Closner), who appeared during several songs to add some lovely harmonies.
After wrapping the album performance, the band drove through seven of their biggest hits from other records, bringing fans to their feet with singalong-ready renditions of songs like “Phantom Limb,” “Australia” and set closer “Simple Song.” Any pre-show snark about the set being overly maudlin were snuffed out by this stretch, as Mercer and the band, dressed in all white, commanded the crowd like a jam session at a very joyous cult.
When the Shins were earnestly touring “Oh, Inverted World” two decades ago, it would have been impossible to predict that they’d end their encore at Radio City Music Hall with a mashup of the dancey “Sleeping Lessons” and Tom Petty’s karaoke classic “American Girl,” but in nearly every way, this is a very different band. And what a relief that, feeding off the energy of a great group of musicians who just want to rock out, even an anniversary tour couldn’t turn the Shins into a legacy act, but rather one that sounds as hungry as a band at the start of their career.
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