The Shins at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 5/29/12 (photos and review)

It might not have been the first show of the season at Red Rocks, but it sure felt that way. New summer kicks were getting their first taste of the crimson dirt, high school grads were reveling in their newfound freedom and Governor John Hickenlooper was rocking a radical hoodie 10 rows back from center stage. Some sort of ribbon-cutting wouldn’t have felt out of place.

James Mercer and his Shins did well to rise to the occasion. There was an avowed theme apparent early in the set, if not in his songwriting across the board. The Shins played a rousing edition of the first single from their new, taut record, “Port of Morrow.” “Simple Song” is indicative of Mercer’s mission, a poppy gem with a straightforward gait. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles, here: just rock ‘n’ roll led by an unassuming man from Albuquerque and a rotating cast of characters. (Four others last night.) The song zipped, its more angular, harder moments welcomingly aggressive.


The members of the Shins know their way around a downstroke on guitar, punching hooks into your chest. The group doubled down on the uncomplicated style and creed on “Bait and Switch,” Mercer claiming, “I’m just a simple man.” (If the point hadn’t been hammered home, yet, “40 Mark Strasse” was played later, the increasingly silky-yet-dorky frontman identifying it as an R&B tune and playing a “Say It Ain’t So”-like progression before asking in the opening line, “Is it all so very simple?”) As the Shins played their version of crisp, catchy pop music, Mercer’s monastic vision became increasingly apparent. Spare lights illuminated the stage as an artistic rendering of a mountain and beast hung in the background.

But, then again, crafting music so palatable to so many people — full of refrains with whistles and oohs and las and ahs — is every artist’s Sisyphean dilemma. So many songs worked: “Rifle’s Spiral” and “It’s Only Life” on the newer tip, the “Garden State” tandem of “New Slang” and “Caring Is Creepy” on the “classic” side. Even if he picks and chooses his band’s lineup and releases new records relatively sparingly, Mercer is a regular Willy Wonka: He makes delicious candy for the ears something the wide swath of wide-eyed teenagers, jaded hipsters and grey-haired parents could all agree on last night.

Blind Pilot, followed by the Head and the Heart, opened the proceedings. The Head and the Heart were particularly entralling for young folks in the audience. It was difficult, though, to hear through their ears. One girl just off the famous stairs was crying as she mouthed lyrics to a tune from the rootsy Seattle troupe. But, why? It all seemed desperate: lay-up shots of attempted catchiness circling around the rim before dropping to the floor. The band employs some amalgam of the smooth harmonies of Mumford & Sons with the contrived builds of Arcade Fire, but it all feels innocuous and unoriginal.

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Colin St. John is a Denver-based writer and merrymaker. Follow him on Twitter and check out his blog.

Daniel Petty is a Denver-based photographer and social media editor at The Denver Post.