A Saturday of Firsts — The Shins and Salvador Sobral Make History
Saturday, May 13, was a day of firsts for this music lover and many others.
Around 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, 27-year-old Portuguese crooner Salvador Sobral swept the 2017 Eurovision talent competition.
Up until then, Portugal had the longest-running losing record in the global talent competition — 53 years.
I admit: I tuned in for comic relief. Eurovision had become a campy source of amusement for me and my friends. We shared many laughs at past years’ corny, wholesome singing groups, self-serious machismos in unitards and divas with big hair and sequined outfits. The exuberant, canned arrangements recalled candy bar commercials or, worse yet, corporate training videos from the ’80s.
Then came Sobral.
The slender balladeer defied typecasts with a sweet, strings-and-piano-kissed ditty called “Amar Pelos Dois (Love for Both),” written by his sister Luisa.
Impish and slightly shy, Sobral emoted in lilting tones with slight creaks and curious tics, as if he might buckle under the weight of the poignant lyrics. A beard barely betrayed his youthful face, as his big brown eyes lit up with surprise when applause erupted mid-song.
His instant classic hit all the sweet spots.
Later, during his acceptance speech, Sobral called his win a victory for “real music,” appealing for a shift from “disposable pop.”
At 8 p.m. EST that same day, around 2,000 fans hemmed in downtown St. Petersburg’s Jannus Live. to see Portland, Ore.-based indie-pop act The Shins play its first Florida show — 16 years after the band’s debut studio album.
A pastel-and-black backdrop displayed the cover illustration from the current album, Heartworms, and flowers festooned the equipment as a light show added dazzling color to the sold-out show presented by Live Nation and No Clubs.
Mercer sang mightily, infusing post-punk and British Invasion influences — foreshadowed by a fantastic pre-show playlist that included Gary Numan and The Zombies.
West Palm Beach’s Surfer Blood — the band that just about every florida indie fan would choose to open for the Shins — started the night with an upbeat but slightly subdued set of their Beach Boys-inspired pop, blessed with co-ed harmonies and tight musicianship. They capped off the their smash anthem of survival, “Swim.”
The tune’s urgency wasn’t lost on frontman John Paul Pitts, who has been through a lot recently, losing a beloved bandmate to cancer and outed in an alleged domestic violence scandal, but he and his band gave a solid performance if not the sprightly display of their Tampa Bay debut at Crowbar seven years ago. Opening for the Shins, Pitts said, was a dream come true, and Shins frontman James Mercer reciprocated later, naming Surfer Blood one of his favorites.
While some introspective singer-songwriters shrink in front of a crowd, the Shins’ singer-guitarist-master poet held forth with amiable confidence, commanding the stage in his signature sea cap and showing his age with a salt-and-pepper beard.
Mercer effused contagious delight, as did his new batch of players: Yuuki Matthews (bass), Jon Sortland (drums), Mark Watrous (guitar, keys, vocals), Casey Foubert (guitar) and Patti King (keys). Their enthusiastic camaraderie and spot-on harmonies conveyed an impression that they’d played with Mercer from the start.
Their set opened with first song that was an introduction for many, “Caring is Creepy,” the baroque Zombies-like first track of Oh, Inverted World, the band’s studio debut.
Capturing the realizations, anxieties and struggles examined during midlife, releases from Heartworms dominated with punch and mania. “Kinda gross, right?” Mercer said of the new album’s title. “Life’s kind of gross. Gross and beautiful.”
Mercer’s ability to translate our baser human moments into luminous, poetic pop has been his stock-in-trade as an indie rock star, and this talent was in full effect during the Jannus concert. He expressed emotion but never came across too overwrought or treacly; he was assertive but just self-deprecating enough to be endearing.
His highlights included the post-breakup rave-up “Kissing the Lipless” from Chutes to Narrow and “Girl Inform Me” from Oh, Inverted World. Noticeably missing were “Know Your Onion” and “So Says I.” Nor did they play any of his Broken Bells singles.
Mercer’s knack for balance, hitting those aforementioned sweet spots and knowing when to rein it in or go balls-out cathartic with raspy howls showed off his Lennon-McCarthy tutelage.
After an exhilarating belt-out of “Simple Song,” Mercer and his posse waved goodbye but returned in short order in a mock Napoleonic rally across the catwalk. Mercer rode piggyback on guitarist Watrous, waving a red Solo cup in the air over a jubilant crowd.
A booming finale featured a rousing “Sleeping Lessons” from Wincing the Night Away and its metaphorical command — So enlist every ounce of your bright blood, and off with their heads” — in a mash-up with Tom Petty’s “American Girl” — a fitting choice for a Florida debut.
Earlier in the evening, Mercer reacted with surprise to the sing-along to “Phantom Limb.” He called the crowd “a bunch of music lovers,” adding,”That song is for all the music lovers.”
It was uncanny, maybe just to me, that the 47-year-old singer-guitarist echoed almost word for word the sentiments of a young Portuguese contest winner four hours earlier from halfway around the world.
And allow me to say, being in agreement with a plurality doesn’t happen too often when you grow up on a steady diet of counter culture and distrust of commercial music. Let alone twice in one day.
Good music is the ultimate equalizer. A well-crafted melody with thoughtful instrumentation can transcend generations, niches and trends — whether it’s in a tricked-out International Exhibition Centre in Kiev or a concrete patio in central Florida.
SHINS SET LIST
Caring Is Creepy
So Now What
Kissing the Lipless
Name for You
Mine’s Not a High Horse
Girl Inform Me
Gone for Good
Painting a Hole
The Rifle’s Spiral
Half a Million
(with “American Girl” by Tom Petty)