A Sounds Eclectic Evening

Gibson Amphitheatre - Los Angeles, CA - April 14, 2007

Music Reviews
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A Sounds Eclectic Evening

For the sixth straight year, the well-heeled denizens of SoCal NPR mainstay KCRW filled Universal City’s Gibson Amphitheatre for a concert celebrating the tastemaker station’s specialty - exposing non-mainstream acts to an active audience ranging from college kids to professionals. At the top of the seven-act bill, which included emerging locals the Cold War Kids and Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, were indie-rock standard bearers the Shins and U.K. pop tart Lily Allen.

The requisite “special guest” was Scotland’s Travis, attempting to make a comeback after helping usher in the romantic form of Britpop that Coldplay (last year’s headliner) subsequently took to the top of the charts. Always an impressively tight unit, Travis was tight as ever in a stripped-down setup, and Fran Healy sang with characteristic gentility, acknowledging his status as a father-to-be in a lovely new song. The band closed the mini-set with signature song, “Driftwood,” evoking a sense of nostalgia for simpler, less-anguished times not that long ago.

Those skeptics (myself among them) who assumed Lily Allen was the product of Pro Tools magic and lacked the musicality to back up her insouciance were greeted by a self-assured performer with bona fide vocal chops, which she put to good use. The three-piece horn section and Two Tone grooves provided by a dreadlocked bass player and keyboardist/manipulator gave her performance a pastel soulfulness that recalled the early-’80s English group Haircut 100. What’s more, Allen showed impressive balance as she made her booty-shaking moves on what had to be six-inch heels.

The Shins opened their set in electrifying fashion with a performance of the new “Sleeping Lessons” that was massive enough to fill an arena—which is where their talent and inventiveness may soon take them. Dave Hernandez repeatedly knelt in front of his amp to wring an extra bit of distortion out of his guitar during the song’s onrushing second half, with the high end of James Mercer’s voice a breathtaking fusion of airiness and sinew as he powered through the swooping melody. Soon thereafter, they launched into another Wincing the Night Away linchpin, “Phantom Limb,” which became even more anthemic onstage as they layered hook atop hook on the way to a goose-bump climax.

These two widescreen rockers nearly overwhelmed the baroque pop confections that brought the band to prominence, which now seem like charming miniatures. While “New Slang,” “St. Simon,” “So Says I” and “Caring Is Creepy” seem designed for the low-ceilinged intimacy of the clubs the band previously inhabited, the Wincing material comes alive in a concert hall, blasting through a state-of-the-art PA. The Gibson performance (which would be followed a night later by a full show at the Orpheum) captured the Shins in the midst of their metamorphosis from upstart to contender, and in that sense it paralleled the journey from innocence to experience that is one of Mercer’s major themes. For a time, the Shins could — and did — inhabit both worlds, making it a fascinating juncture in the evolution of an important band.