The Shins Put on a Dynamic Rock Show For Summerfest's BMO Harris Pavilion
Even more so than most of the great indie-rock frontmen of the ’00s, James
Mercer used to carry himself like the stage was the last place he wanted to be.
In the band’s early years, he’d often perform near the side of the stage, as if
to divert attention away from himself, and he’d stand silent between songs,
letting his more gregarious bandmates handle the joking around and stage banter
that typically falls on a band leader’s shoulders.
Over the years, though, as the band’s lineup has repeatedly turned over, Mercer has come to terms with the truth that The Shins are no longer a band in the traditional sense—they’re a solo project disguised as a band, and they’re his lone responsibility. Maybe he’s changed his attitude toward performing or maybe he’s just learned how to play the game, but the Mercer who took the stage Sunday night at Summerfest’s BMO Harris Pavilion wasn’t the same meek songwriter who previously recoiled from the spotlight. He’s grown into an infinitely bolder, chattier, more confident performer than he was 10 or 15 years ago, and he came to deliver a rock show. If he wasn’t actually enjoying himself up there, then he did a hell of a job faking it.
Along with songs from the band’s latest album, this year’s very good Heartworms, nuggets from the band’s nearly flawless first two records Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow made up the vast majority of the set, and between Mercer’s bravado and his crack backing band, most were beefed up considerably from their studio versions. Even humble tunes like “Mine’s Not a High Horse” and “Girl Inform Me” took on real muscle: The guitars snarled, while the drums boomed through the cavernous venue as Mercer shamelessly worked the crowd, leading clap-alongs, pantomiming lyrics and pushing his megawatt falsetto to its limit, backed by a light display right out of a Muse concert. For extra grandeur, two or three of his backing band members accompanied him on violins for softer numbers like “Mildenhall” and “New Slang.”
As part of his charm offensive, Mercer repeatedly complimented the city—the band took the stage to the “Laverne & Shirley” theme song—and flattered the crowd by telling them they got to be among the first to hear the band’s next single, “Half a Million.” He gave that number the hard sell, explaining the inspiration behind it then joking that he was doing the bidding of Columbia Records by pushing it. It was the only time Mercer suggested he was performing more out of obligation than passion—a reminder that for all his enthusiasm, he’s still a guy on a payroll with a job to do and a product to promote. Regardless of what was driving him, though, Sunday night he played the part of a rock star like an old pro.