Saturday night marked not only the official grand opening of new West Side hang The Stone Fox with DJ Jonathan Toubin's Soul Clap and Dance Off, but also the big re-opening of Jack White's Third Man Records with a performance from The Shins in advance of their Ryman gig. And though yes, The Spin had been granted a tour of TMR's new expanded digs a week or so before, we were ready to see that new live record-cutting lathe in action. And when we entered through the venue's new door — a big, heavy, metal number with an Emerald City kind of thing going on — we noticed that the now-covered entranceway (which used to be an alley) stirred childhood memories of the Opryland ride Chaos. Maybe it was the fact that it's a darkened sort of hallway with an ominous red light. When we asked some of our fellows if they too felt flashbacks of Chaos, we were met with the realization that none of them had frequented Opryland in their youth. A dude waiting outside overheard and appreciated The Spin's comparison, however, so we hooked him up with our +1.
Kicking off the evening was a set from stomping showmen and piano-bolstered rock 'n' roll quartet Low Cut Connie. While their pianist and frontman — who referred to himself as having a high level of "gorgeousness" and kind of resembled a small version of Zachary Quinto — was clearly shooting for a Screamin' Jay Hawkins/Jerry Lee Lewis sort of thing, LCC's bluesy pop numbers really came off more like Elton John songs minus the Elton-level vocal chops. As evidenced by dude's on-piano-bench dance moves (and the fact that he came in second place at Toubin's Dance Off later that evening), the Connie frontman seemed to enjoy the limelight a bit more than we personally enjoyed him enjoying the limelight. Anyway, the drummer swapped his sticks for a guitar and came out front to take the lead for a bit, and his pipes were pretty good.
We took a bit of time before The Shins' set to wander the grounds, checking out the 45s sealed in epoxy outside and the bidet affixed to the ceiling in the men's restroom. (Yes, we were mistaken when we said it was a toilet — definitely a bidet.) We of The Spin obviously weren't the only ones expressing an interest in the new decor, as we noticed some Third Man fans dorking out over the 45s forever just out of their reach and twiddling at the knobs of the ceiling bidet — seriously guys, what kind of best-case scenario is playing out in your brain when you turn the knob of a bidet that's dangling directly overhead?
After a bit of stage turnover back inside, Third Man consigliere Ben Swank came out to introduce The Shins, assuring us that he'd be back after a couple more songs to "officially" intro the band once recording began for their live LP. Founding Shin James Mercer and his cast of hired guns mounted the stage and burned quickly through renditions of "Kissing the Lipless" and "Caring Is Creepy," certainly sounding tighter and fuller with their six-member lineup than ever they did as a four-piece — nevertheless, at least a little tiny bit of us missed seeing the original lineup out there. Also, we're pretty big Richard Swift fans, and we were definitely jazzed on seeing him in the roll of keyboardist/auxiliary percussionist/backing vocalist.
As the lathe spun up under the supervision of what appeared to be a floating torso wearing a lab coat (that video screen isn't totally clear about what black magic is happening beyond the recording window), Swank returned for a succinct "official" intro before scurrying offstage as the opening chords to "Australia" rang out over a mixed bag of local rock luminaries, Shins superfans and perhaps over-eager Third Man vinyl collectors. There was also a guy in lederhosen walking around, but we're pretty sure he was with the bands. Third Man crowds are a little weird, but they're usually not that weird.
It's been a good five years since we last saw The Shins, which was effectively a lifetime ago as far as indie rock is concerned. The band we once saw bang out a Modern Lovers cover onstage at the Ryman is so far removed from the one that rolled up on Third Man that we almost hesitate to compare the two. The Shins are undeniably a James Mercer joint, and his voice certainly bridges the two eras, but the songs just feel so different in sound quality and texture that it's honestly a little surprising. They're still able to sound like the kind of band that would record "Girl Inform Me," but the difference is stark. Putting fan favorites from Wincing the Night Away (including "Phantom Limb") up against tracks from Port of Morrow ("Simple Song," "Bait and Switch"), the difference in density is undeniable.
With three minutes left on the clock, the Third Man techs took to switching sides of the acetate while the band scrambled to replace a noisy amp head. Theoretically, this would've been a seamless process. While flipping the record, the band was going to play an unrecorded in-betweener song ("Saint Simon," which later surfaced in the encore) before jumping into the second side. That ... didn't happen. But it's not like we hadn't already been warned by Swank that this was a learning process. It was the grand reopening, after all, and this is a ridiculously tricky process. Instead, Mercer and Swift mostly just shot down Broken Bells requests and talked about buying Breaking Bad-themed blue rock candy in Albuquerque.
The amp sitch was sorted quickly and the band launched into the back half of the set, leaning heavily on less pop-oriented songs from Port of Morrow. Nobody's ever going to confuse The Shins for Merzbow, but you kinda get the feeling that Mercer's pretty much over being called "that guy with the Garden State song." After a diversion into "So Says I," The Shins tackled three Port of Morrow tunes in a row — "The Rifle's Spiral," "No Way Down" and a surprisingly noisy, almost post-rocky version of the title track that closed the recording. It reminded us why we liked this band in the first place — even (especially?) removed from Natalie Portman tweeness.
Speaking of Natalie Portman tweeness, Mercer & Co. saved that theme song to Manic Pixie Dream Girls everywhere for after the metaphorical tape stopped rolling. Frankly, we could do without ever hearing "New Slang" again, but we're also pretty sure there would be rioting in the streets if The Shins booted it from their set. Assuming you count an onslaught of sarcastic tweets as rioting, that is. The house lights popped on shortly after the band closed with "Sleeping Lessons," bidding us to GTFO. Just as well — we had a sweaty, at-capacity West Side soul party to get to.