“Indie rock royalty” is a phrase thrown around about a lot of bands these days. Whether it be in an album review, a press release, or by some overzealous fans, the term is pretty widespread, and almost meaningless by now. It also makes it extremely hard to distinguish those bands that truly do stand above all the rest. Getting a consensus of those bands that truly deserve the honor of being labeled “indie rock royalty” might be as difficult as finding a mass amount of people willing to admit they’re fans of Creed. But I think there are a few bands out there that the music community would be in complete agreement on for this.
The Shins, Ra Ra Riot
Monday, May 27 at The National
“Indie rock royalty” is a phrase thrown around about a lot of bands these days. Whether it be in an album review, a press release, or by some overzealous fans, the term is pretty widespread, and almost meaningless by now. It also makes it extremely hard to distinguish those bands that truly do stand above all the rest. Getting a consensus of those bands that truly deserve the honor of being labeled “indie rock royalty” might be as difficult as finding a mass amount of people willing to admit they’re fans of Creed. But I think there are a few bands out there that the music community would be in complete agreement on for this. Death Cab For Cutie for sure. Arcade Fire has to be there. And undoubtedly, The Shins are not only in that small selection of bands, but most likely one of the first to pop into your mind. Whether you enjoy their music or not, it’s clear The Shins have reached a point where they are synonymous with indie rock. They not only deserve the “indie rock royalty” title; they innovated it. Fifteen years removed from their first release, with four critically acclaimed studio albums under their belt, the band from Portland (by way of New Mexico) is still showing people what indie music, and indeed, rock and roll music in general, is all about.
The Shins released their fantastic fourth studio album, Port Of Morrow, over a year ago. It was a first in many important ways–the first Shins record in nearly five years, and the first since James Mercer’s side project Broken Bells (formed with Danger Mouse of Gnarls Barkley) released their well-received self-titled debut in 2010. On top of that, it was the first Shins record since Wincing The Night Away, which, while receiving high praise, was not held in nearly the same regard as 2001’s Oh, Inverted World or 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow. Most importantly though, this was the first Shins album without any of the original members (save James Mercer). Bassist Dave Hernandez, keyboardist Marty Crandall, and drummer Jesse Sandoval all exited in 2009. Hernandez had been with the band since its start, while Crandall & Sandoval had been with Mercer in the band Flake Music, a direct predecessor to The Shins. To say this album faced a lot of expectations would be a gross understatement, but Mercer pulled it off and delivered an album that not only affirmed his band’s standing in the indie rock pantheon, but also proved that they still have a lot more to give–and, perhaps, a lot more to prove. Touring behind this album for over a year, The Shins stopped in Richmond on Memorial Day at The National for the penultimate show of their tour. As the band proclaimed during the show, the concert had sold out the day it went on sale. Not many pass up a chance to see royalty, it seems.
Indie mainstays Ra Ra Riot opened the night as the crowd trickled in. The crowd was treated to 13 songs, nearly a headlining set from the Syracuse natives, who are out in support of their third studio album, Beta Love. I have to admit, I’m not too high on that album. Like many people, I was taken aback by 2008’s The Rhumb Line, but in my opinion, I don’t think the band’s been able to get back to that point. You couldn’t tell it from the crowd though, as there seemed to be people just as excited for Ra Ra Riot as they were for The Shins. However, I felt their set was kind of lacking. I’m not that into the new material, and the sound also seemed a little bit off, so I wasn’t able to enjoy the orchestral dynamic that really defined The Rhumb Line. Finally, to be completely honest, I was surprised at their relatively calm stage presence. I’m not saying they were listless musical mummies, but this is a band that got recognition for their live shows long before their debut album dropped, so I was expecting a bit more. What I did get was confirmation that singer Wes Miles has an ungodly voice. His singing on “Beta Love” was absolutely spectacular. I can’t even describe it. His voice is really every bit as fantastic as it is on record. Overall, I was left a bit cold their set. But it was obvious I was alone in that, as the crowd reaction was raucous, especially at the end of their set. Just seeing the crowd near the stage react was enough to know that Ra Ra Riot probably exceeded a lot of people’s expectations, and most likely gained a whole new swarm of fans.
With the opening band down, it was time for the main event. While we packed in like sardines as even more people showed up, I started to notice just how diverse the crowd really was. There were hipsters with skinny jeans, teenagers squealing, middle-aged couples, and everyone in between. And everyone was aware of it. The teenagers were complaining about the older crowd, and vice versa. The disparity was surprising at first, but if you think about it, pretty telling of the band’s stature. Mercer himself is slightly over 40, and Oh, Inverted World is almost a teenager itself. The fans around that time were fresh out of college, newly married, and/or just starting a career path. Twelve years later, they’re still here, just like Mercer. But this isn’t an older band making records far past their relevance (Blondie, for example). The Shins are just as important, relevant, and meaningful as they were back in 2001, so of course they’re making more and more new fans. This made for one of the most diverse crowds I’ve seen at The National. “Indie rock royalty,” indeed. These weren’t casual fans either who picked up Oh, Inverted World in 2001 and never listened again or, on the flip side, just listened to Port Of Morrow a few months ago and nothing else. The band opened with “The Rifle’s Spiral,” the opening track from their latest, and followed it up with “Australia” from their third album. Each one got as loud an ovation as the other, showing this was a crowd that knew The Shins, loved The Shins, and were ready to be absolutely blown away by The Shins.
And blow us away they did. I lost count of the set list–I was in another world with the rest of the crowd, as The Shins mixed their catalogue of songs extremely well. Yes, Port Of Morrow songs were more frequent, but it’s the tour for that album, and the other three albums were perfectly represented, to the extent that I couldn’t imagine anyone walking away feeling less than satisfied. There were far too many highlights of the evening to count, but I’m going to try. The start of “Caring Is Creepy” had people freaking out beyond belief (and rightfully so). The very funky version of “No Way Down” was vastly different than the album version, and slightly better with the crazy amount of cowbell during the song (the whole crowd must have had the fever…). “Phantom Limb” was drawn out in all its glory to allow the crowd a perfect singalong, as Mercer crooned “with no connection” so serenely over them. The highlight for me, though, was finally seeing “So Says I” live. That opening chord hit, the crowd erupted, and everyone just started dancing before joining in on the trademark squeal… twice. After seeing them perform the song on Gilmore Girls over and over again after repeated viewings, it was definitely the song I looked forward to the most. (Re: Gilmore Girls–Go ahead and make your jokes, but this was a show playing The Shins, Belle & Sebastian, Rancid, and others far before their fame, and even had bands like Sonic Youth do guest appearances. Know before you mock, please.)
Overall though, I’d have to say the highlight of the night was “New Slang”–but not for the reason you’d expect. This was the song that really made The Shins, and neither the song nor the band will never escape the shadow of Natalie Portman telling Zach Braff that it will change his life. But the crowd treated the song… so oddly. There were big reactions, yes, but not compared to other songs. I’d say “Know Your Onion!” got an even bigger scream from the crowd, to be honest. The crowd probably all loved “New Slang” as much as the next person, but they weren’t here to hear this song. This wasn’t the crowd that latched on to “New Slang,” “Simple Song,” and their other indie hits. This was the crowd that adored all of The Shins’ records and loved hearing their amazing compositions. They swayed and snag along to the indie anthem of the early 2000s, but from the roar that erupted as the band started their set closer, “Sleeping Lesson,” it was clear that people did not come to hear “New Slang.” They came for The Shins in their entirety–and the band offered it all for the crowd. Acoustic tenderness with “September,” dark & brooding music with the short “Pam Berry,” indie rock gold with “Bait And Switch,” and an intense rock jam during the encore. The Shins delivered in every single way on Memorial Day, and proved exactly why they are just as clearly the flag-bearers for Indie Rock in 2013 as they were in 2001.
All hail the royalty.