The Shins, McDowell Mountain Music Festival, 3/22/13

Melissa Fossum
James Mercer of The Shins performing @ McDowell Mountain Music Festival. See more photos in the complete photo slideshow.

The Shins @ McDowell Mountain Music Festival at Margret T. Hance Park|3/22/13
It's been 10 years since McDowell Mountain Music fest got started, and nine since Natalie Portman, as the prototypical "manic pixie dream girl" stated that The Shins would "change your life." In that time, McDowell Mountain Music fest has stayed its course, appealing to local music fans with a mix heavy on crunchy jam bands and a few carefully selected indie acts. The Shins, on the other hand, have enjoyed nearly a decade of divergence from a once-assumed path.

See also:

-Photo Slideshow: The Shins, Balkan Beat Box and More: McDowell Mountain Music Festival, 3/22/13

The songs of singer/songwriter James Mercer, the band's lone constant, have gone from the twee curiosities only a "hipster" like Portman's Garden State character would know about to genuine pop, beloved by screaming "woo girls," guys with backward baseball caps, and the drunk-and-high-at-the-same-time dude in a sleeveless shirt doing interpretive dances with his wrists while aimlessly bouncing into me.

Melissa Fossum
James Mercer of The Shins performing @ McDowell Mountain Music Festival. See more photos in the complete photo slideshow.
It's almost unfair to bring up The Shins' Garden State reference -- or, at the very least it makes me look lazy -- but hear me out. Nine years ago Garden State represented a burgeoning lucrative model: the branding of "indie culture" as big business. Urban Outfitters was booming; Pitchfork was making careers (Arcade Fire, Funeral) and breaking them (Travis Morrison's Travistan). Zach Braff's maudlin film, scored to a soundtrack picked by Braff himself, was an intro to a new youth culture. It doesn't really feature a lot of "indie" music, even when you use the term as nebulously as Taylor Swift uses it. Aside from The Shins and Iron & Wine (covering The Postal Service) the compilation mostly features bad trip-hop, a great Nick Drake song, and big time alternative (Coldplay, and uh, Remy Zero). But it doesn't matter. The record sold because people liked thinking it was "indie," and they liked applying the term to themselves. The record sold because it was "indie-tastic."

I'm not bummed at Braff. The dude just picked a bunch of songs he liked. (I will sorta cringe thinking about the film itself, though. At 19 it felt pretty deep. Now, it seems pretty goofy.) I certainly don't blame The Shins, whose roots trace back to New Mexico cult acts like Flake Music and the razorblade-sharp pop punk of Scared of Chaka, for blowing up. Listening to the band's debut, Oh, Inverted World, it's clear that underneath the reverb and '60s pop affections, Mercer was penning hit songs as far back as 2001.

With each subsequent album, he embraced more and more "big pop" ideas, and as the band tore through the distorted guitar rock classic "Simple Song," from its 2012 release Port of Morrow, at Margret T. Hance Park as part of McDowell Mountain Music Festival 2013 last night, it was clear that Mercer's got no qualms living his ambitions. (Ambition doesn't really fit in with the Garden State format, does it?)

Location Info


Margaret T. Hance Park

1134 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, AZ

Category: General

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