Once upon a time, in a hermetically-sealed dorm room—there was a wet towel laid against the door crack to keep the resident law impervious to any, err, fumes—I was made privy to the wonder that is The Shins' Oh, Inverted World. It was one of those momentous discoveries, one that has followed me like a remora throughout the years, and with four years of radio silence, I was beginning to think I'd missed the boat entirely. Never again would the Shins resurface, damning us all to scour Broken Bells' second, third, and fourth releases for any recognizable trace of Mercer's inimitable songwriting abilities.
Which is why it was particularly enthralling to see that the band had scheduled a show in Portland (and at the Doug Fir, no less!). It did raise an eyebrow—is this a special occasion, a treat for our fair city (which is home to quite a few Shins members, past and present), or more of a testing grounds to see if the band still has fans after the extended hiatus.Surprise! They do. Tickets sold out in the blink of an hour, and at 10pm, the log-laden showroom was all but bustling (Though, not quite to Mercer's standards; immediately upon taking the stage, he mentioned something about 340 people coming through the door, while the capacity of the room is 390, and the absence of those 50 people seemed very disconcerting...)
Speaking of people, it's difficult to pinpoint the demographic of Shins fans these days. We're all getting older, and surely there aren't too many folks left who will grab you and say, "Hey, I just discovered this great band from Albuquerque! You ever heard of 'em?" And so, one can't help but consider that boundary line of musical bigotry between pre- and post- Garden State fans. While watching "New Slang" through the tiny touch screen of a a particularly excited young man's Android, it occurred to me that I might be able to measure his degree of appreciation for the band in cubic feet of oxygen breathed through Zach Braff's open mouth. Did the Shins change his life before or after Natalie Portman's insistence? Does it matter? Most likely not. But I digress.
Generally, the set was solid. It showed equal opportunity rights to all of the Shins' catalog, even boasted a new song and a few rousing covers (including Sonny & the Sunsets' "Death Cream," and Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes"). Jessica Dobson—once Beck's touring guitarist—was a veritable shredder on lead and it was a pleasant surprise to see Pickathon hero Richard Swift playing keys (though he was massively underutilized—Ezra likened the situation to "buying a Ferrari to go pick up groceries.") James Mercer, however, seemed utterly disconnected from... well, everyone. In addition to a general lack of gelling amongst the band, Mercer barely acknowledged the crowd (which, as a current resident of Portland, surely contained some close friends and family) and maintained the distance that one might yield as defense against the dull pain of going through the motions.
Whether or not that has anything to do with the collective energy of the crowd is up for debate—Portland rock shows are not exactly known for their pitching-and-heaving dance floors, though there was a noticeable lull, uncommon for a room so packed. Regardless, I managed to waltz right through the masses to witness different songs from different vantage points without rerouting around a single flailing, oblivious roadblock; in fact, the sea of people actually parted as I walked, cutting a clear path that lead right to... Danger Mouse, getting harassed by a doting fan. Suddenly, another flashback of that resident hall opium den flashed by, toting a group of stoned teenagers totally rapt with the Grey Album. If nothing else, last night's show was a blaring reminder of things passed; I guess we'll see what's to come.