UPDATE: This post has been updated to reflect Tom Petty’s unfortunate passing.
When James Mercer of The Shins led his bandmates in a quick rendition of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” during the encore on Saturday night, it seemed a playful and fitting close to a warm, enchanted evening.
Now, two days removed, it feels like everything has changed.
Not only did Tom Petty pass away Monday, but Sunday night saw a music festival in Las Vegas become the target of unfathomable bloodshed and violence.
Neither of these things were news when Britt Daniel and Spoon stormed their way through a nearly perfect hour-long set rife with cuts off their latest album, Hot Thoughts. They were on no one’s mind when Mercer and his roving cast of supporting musicians offered a series of significantly reworked takes on some of The Shins’ most memorable tracks.
Yet here we are.
Live music events have always been a venue for strangers to bond — or at least, to tolerate each other — for a few hours. You chat with a guy in the beer line about which song Spoon is likely to open with. (Answer: “Do I Have To Talk You Into It.”) You stand shoulder to shoulder with a couple who dance with unapologetic passion when The Shins inevitably break out “New Slang” late in their set.
No one would be crazy enough to think that every concert is a utopian experience, but everyone who goes to see live music does so with an understanding that, for the brief few hours they stare towards the stage and press pause on the lives beyond the venue, they are safe. To see this contract broken, to learn it has been shattered in blood and chaos, is to be stripped of a home we all collectively share.
Now, we must read about increased security at next weekend’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. We must actually consider the once-impossible truth that the burly security guards and cumbersome metal detectors are no longer set decoration. In short, we must actually ask ourselves if the risk outweighs the reward in deciding whether to see the bands we love.
On Saturday night, these questions weren’t yet weighing on a sold-out crowd made up largely of millennials who can still remember portable CD players but who likely uploaded The Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow onto their first iPod. I am among them, and The Shins and Spoon are two bands that have managed to weather the fickle tastes of modern music fans, to create something more lasting than their placement on a film soundtrack or median album score on Pitchfork.
In Spoon is the spirit of rock, admirably demonstrated by Daniel as he yelped and slunk his way across the stage. He brandished his voice like a madman, reaching for high notes and selling out for screams so that each song was everything it could possibly be. Few bands are as well-rehearsed and intuitively in-sync as Spoon. Exuding a meticulous yet ferocious energy, they made sure no one in the crowd forgot it.
To see The Shins live is to appreciate James Mercer’s mastery in the studio. This is not a knock against his live performance, but even with a full band behind him, Mercer seems to accept that there is no way to translate the subtle warbles of synth and fuzz that hover like dust in the sunlight in his songs into his concert performances.
Instead, he took fan favorites like “Caring is Creepy” and “Gone for Good” and gave them some minor surgery. “Caring is Creepy” came with a slightly sinister urgency nowhere to be found in the buoyant original. Likewise, “Gone for Good” saw its country twang enhanced and set into a softly bleak serenade.
While unfortunately it did seem as though Mercer might be fighting some vocal trouble — more than a few lush falsettos were delivered in a lower register — his genuine delight with the audience and effort as a performer could be felt even from the farthest perches on the Greek lawn.
Saturday night was, in short, why we go through the slog of ticket presales, overpriced parking, and bland hot dogs.
We do it to see Mercer take “Girl on the Wing” and “Turn a Square” and sandwich them into a cover of The Outfield’s “Your Love.” We do it to watch Daniel burn it down with scorching set closer “Rent I Pay.” We do it because, as music fans, there are no substitutes for the spine shivers we get when our favorite notes carry out into the night.
Answers are the hard part, but while we search for them and demand them and supply them to those that would choose to hear anything but the truth, let us remember what brought that crowd to a stage on the Las Vegas strip, and what brought another to the Greek the evening prior, and what will continue to compel us to return.
Do I Have to Talk You Into It
I Turn My Camera On
The Beast and Dragon, Adored
Don’t You Evah
I Ain’t the One
Can I Sit Next To You
Don’t Make Me a Target
Rent I Pay
Caring Is Creepy
Kissing the Lipless
Mine’s Not a High Horse
Gone for Good
Painting a Hole
Half a Million
Girl on the Wing / Turn a Square (medley, with cover of The Outfield’s “Your Love”)
Sleeping Lessons (with cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl”)