It’s hard to know sometimes whether you’re supposed to sing along to solo acoustic shows like this one.
Last year, at a benefit concert for The Minus 5/R.E.M./Filthy Friends/Fresh Young Fellows’ Scott McCaughey, Shins frontperson James Mercer graced us with a rare and all-too brief solo set of Shins songs. As a longtime Shins fan, it was a real treat to get to see those songs played in stripped-back form, and made me wish he’d do a whole show’s worth of solo songs. I wasn’t the only one, apparently: the announcement for a special one-off solo set at the 300-capacity Doug Fir sold out in minutes. This isn’t a shock – we’re 18 years removed from Oh, Inverted World, but the music of the Shins still has many people in its thrall. Perhaps he wasn’t aware that he would have sold out the Crystal Ballroom just as quickly, but who am I to complain about a show this intimate?
Portland’s beloved synthpoppers Pure Bathing Culture opened, scaling down appropriately, ditching the synths entirely and leaving us with just Sarah Versprille’s voice and Daniel Hindman’s acoustic guitar. The act of stripping away the “synth” part of “synthpop” altogether is a risky move, but an almost-acoustic atmosphere (Hindman performed with a modest pedalboard, used for tasteful reverb to flesh each song out) helped to bring the focus back to Versprille’s dynamite voice and lyrics. Dressed in white bell bottoms and a white button-up covered in gold details, she still bounced gently as worked her way through the 10-song set, which pulled from each release (save for their version of the Blue Nile’s Hats) from their self-titled EP’s “Ivory Coast” to Night Pass cuts “All Night” and “Devotion,” unable to completely tuck away her stage presence even for a show this undanceable.
Then came Mercer, bedecked in a black beanie and a flannel shirt, a noticeable layer of stubble coating his face. If he was nervous about the whole thing it didn’t show, his eyes lighting up as the packed crowd greeted him with ecstatic applause; perhaps he was surprised by the reception? The Doug Fir may as well have been Edgefield Amphitheatre when he launched into Wincing the Night Away’s “Australia,” his voice sounding as warm as it did 12 years ago when the album came out. Every song received this level of excitement: “Caring Is Creepy” and “Kissing the Lipless” each generated joy as effortlessly as they always have, but so did unspeakably rare cuts like “Weird Divide” (named by Mercer as his mom’s favorite song) and “Your Algebra,” the former of which has only been played twice, with the latter last being seen in 2004 – Mercer noted that he was sure they’d never played these songs live, which wasn’t too far off.
The Shins weren’t the only focus, though, as we were given a pair of Broken Bells songs (“Vaporize” from their self-titled and a live debut of new track “Shelter”) and a gorgeous cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest,” which made me hungry for another R.E.M. cover. I’d secretly hoped for just one song from his pre-Shins band Flake Music, but we weren’t that lucky – instead, we got a brand new song called “Slave,” a long-wrestled song that he completed as a tribute to his late friend and former Shin Richard Swift. The night wasn’t even entirely about Mercer: the crowd carried the backing vocals and flourishes that permeate the band’s music. It’s hard to know sometimes whether or not you’re supposed to sing along to solo acoustic shows like this one, but after a couple songs of this he commended the crowd for doing so, noting how hard it is to translate those things when you’re onstage alone. He wasn’t even completely alone, with Versprille returning to lend her voice to “Shelter” and Chutes Too Narrow’s “Saint Simon,” more as an augmentation than a duet, her voice making up for the backing vocals present on so many of these songs.
After “The Past and Pending,” and a designated break (continuing the world’s assault on the absurd concept of the encore) he returned for “Your Algebra,” “Phantom Limb,” and – you guessed it – “New Slang,” the oohs and woah-ohs of the latter two provided again by Versprille. “New Slang”’s position in pop culture history makes it more of a joy generator than anything in the band’s oeuvre, enough that the crowd ignored the lights and house music coming up to continue applauding and cheering for just one more song. He never came back out for a second encore, but the fervor of the crowd said a lot about how much staying power the band still possesses. Here’s hoping it inspires him to play more shows like this.