It was 9:30 p.m. when James Mercer looked out on a sea of skinny jeans and said, “We kind of changed that one up, right?”
If you needed a theme from The Shins’ 90-minute performance at Red Butte Garden on Monday, there it was at the end of “No Way Down,” a light rock story tune that the band twisted into something funkadelic.
Looking for more cowbell?
It was in that rendition of one of the songs that carries The Shins’ fourth studio album, “Port of Morrow,” released earlier this year.
Bold move, taking a song that Shin-ophiles and newcomers are still learning, then twisting it. While most artists try to reinvent songs from albums and eras past, The Shins are always creating, always tweaking, always playing. It was a blast of refreshment, a reminder that music isn’t static, but electric, and that it can change like the seasons, and not just because an audience has heard it dozens of times before or because the artist needs to disrupt his muscle memory.
And since when has a concert at Red Butte Garden ever been about same old, same old?
No matter how many shows one attends at the popular Salt Lake City amphitheater, it will forever be unexpected when a band takes the stage, fully exposed against the backdrop of the Wasatch Front, like a stand of young cottonwoods in a clearcut.
Nature and culture come together so seamlessly there, and as dusk set on Monday night, studio-perfect sound came from the stage and it almost felt like an evening run — The Shins turned to full volume in your ear buds, you losing yourself to the music and the pace. If you were in a music video, you would want it to be this one. It was true not just for The Shins, but also both of the openers: Blind Pilot and The Head and The Heart, two bands fresh off performances at Sasquatch, each seeming quite capable of headlining their own shows at Red Butte in not-so-distant summers.
And perhaps the Red Butte experience is uniquely enjoyed with The Shins; the Portland, Ore.-based alt-legends have come a long way since “Garden State.” The new album showcases a more tender, personal side of the band. So when James Mercer sings, ”A creature of habit has no real protection,” you believe him and even understand what he means, if for no other reason than it comes from a man standing in front of thousands of people competing with a 10,000-foot tall mountain for their attention.
While Mercer was engaging and as playful with the audience as he was with the songs, The Shins were not so loose with the standards that a casual fan couldn’t find the elements that turned him or her on in the first place. Near the end of the set, “Mine’s Not a High Horse,” from the 2003 album “Chutes Too Narrow,” was perhaps the truest display of a modern rock band, and “Sleeping Lessons,” which closed the set (before the encore) turned into a pure jam session.
If you closed your eyes on a song like “Bait and Switch,” which was performed true to the studio version, it was easy enough to imagine that there was no band on the stage at all, just house music providing the soundtrack to a set change. Maybe it was a testament to the sound system or the effects of Shiner Bock or just to The Shins, but it was all lovely. Just what you would expect at the seam of nature and culture, of beauty and sound.