Early in the Shins’ warm and bouncy show at House of Blues on Wednesday night, James Mercer declared wryly: “Hey, I just threw my pick into the crowd. Like a real rock star!”
He may be one of the few of his generation of ’00s-vintage indie-rock frontmen who could make this simple quip without sounding sourly ironic. Indeed, when you release an album on an impeccably credentialed independent label and it goes to No. 2 (as with 2007’s “Wincing the Night Away,” the band’s final release on Sub Pop), the lines between rock star and outsider popster become very blurry.
Mercer is still anonymous enough to have walked by unnoticed in front of fans queued up in the rain to get into the venue right around show time. But he’s written and recorded some of the great albums of his era. And if it’s not necessarily possible to amp up the Shins’ insular, almost meditative take on jangly pop into a stadium-sized version, the sound is just big enough to keep a sold-out house like this one fully enraptured. (Even if that rapture is expressed almost solely through aggressive head-bobbing.)
Playing rhythm guitar and leading a six-piece band (the Shins started as more of a proper collective but evolved into its frontman’s solo project, with revolving membership), Mercer leapt forward with an energetic take on “Caring Is Creepy” to open, spiced by a concise guitar solo from Casey Foubert. The song’s electric force made me wonder if the intricacies of the band’s recorded sound might be smoothed out in the live setting, but the oomph was carefully focused — even if some of the subtleties of the arrangements were lost in a rather rough house mix.
Part of the Shins’ earworm quality comes from Mercer’s knack for writing songs that sound vaguely familiar, paced by a sneaky, subdued energy that’s something like a cat who forever creeps along stealthily but seldom pounces. So new songs “Painting a Hole” and “Half a Million” sounded just right alongside classics like “Kissing the Lipless” and “Saint Simon.”
Taken together, the band’s work spans basement angst and (nearly) chart-topping pop power; these two poles might be best balanced in “Simple Song,” which closed the set with great force. Maybe not as much force as would have been generated if the band delivered on the brief taste of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” it offered earlier, between songs.
To really pull that one off, the Shins may have indeed needed a rock star at the helm. But then it’d be a different sort of band. For this group’s purposes, an airborne guitar pick is quite enough.
At House of Blues, Wednesday eveningJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.