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 æSalvador Sobral swept the 2017 Eurovisionætalent competition.
Up until then, Portugal hadæthe longest-running losing record in the global talent competition — 53 years.
I admit: I tuned in for comic relief. Eurovisionæhad become a campy source ofæamusement for me and my friends. Weæshared many laughsæat past years’ corny, wholesome æsinging groups, self-serious machismos in unitards and divas with big hair and sequined outfits. The exuberant, canned arrangements recalledæcandy bar commercials or, worse yet, corporate training videos from the ’80s.
Then came Sobral.
The slender balladeerædefied typecasts with a sweet, strings-and-piano-kissed dittyæcalled “Amar Pelos Dois (Love for Both),” written by his sister Luisa.
Impish and slightly shy, Sobralæemoted in lilting tones withæslight creaks and curious tics, as if he might buckleæunderæthe weight of the poignant lyrics. Aæbeard barelyæbetrayed his youthful face, asæhis big brown eyes lit up withæsurprise whenæapplause 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,”æ appealingæfor a shift from “disposable pop.”
At 8 p.m. EST that same day,æaround 2,000 fans hemmed in downtown St. Petersburg’s æJannus Live. to see Portland, Ore.-basedæindie-pop act The Shins play itsæfirst Florida show –æ16 years after the band’s debut studio album.
A pastel-and-blackæbackdrop displayed the cover illustrationæfrom the current album, Heartworms, and flowers festooned the equipment asæa 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 influencesæ– foreshadowed byæa 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 frontmanæJohn Paul Pitts, who has been through a lot recently,ælosing a beloved bandmate to cancer and outed in an alleged domestic violenceæscandal, 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,ænaming 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.
Merceræeffused contagious delight, as did hisænew batch of players: æYuuki Matthews (bass), Jon Sortland (drums), Mark Watrous (guitar, keys, vocals), Casey Foubert (guitar) and Patti King (keys). Their enthusiastic camaraderie and spot-on harmonies conveyedæan impression that they’d played with Merceræfrom the start.
Their set opened with æfirst song that was an introduction for many, “Caring is Creepy,” the baroque Zombies-like first track of Oh, Inverted World,æthe band’s studio debut.
Capturing the realizations, anxieties and strugglesæexamined duringæmidlife, releases from Heartworms dominated with punch and mania. äóìKinda gross, right?äó Mercer said of the new album’s title. äóìLifeäó»s kind of gross. Gross and beautiful.äó
Mercer’s ability to translate our baser human momentsæinto 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 expressedæemotion but never came across too overwrought or treacly; he was assertive butæjust 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. æNoticeably 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 orægo balls-out cathartic with raspy howls æshowed off his Lennon-McCarthy tutelage.
After an exhilarating belt-outæof “Simple Song,” Mercer and his posse waved goodbye but returnedæin short order in a mock æNapoleonic rally across the catwalk. Mercer rode piggyback onæguitaristæWatrous, waving a red Solo cup in the air over a jubilant crowd.
A booming finale featured a rousing “Sleeping Lessons” from Wincing the Night Awayæand 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 surpriseæto the sing-along toæ”Phantom Limb.” He called the crowd “a bunch of music lovers,” adding,”That song is for all the music lovers.äó
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 ætrends — 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)