Boy, things have changed in James Mercer's world since last time he brought his band, The Shins, to Bend.
Back then — late August, 2007 — Mercer and his longtime band mates were riding high on their third album, “Wincing the Night Away,” which had debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's album chart earlier in the year.
They headlined Les Schwab Amphitheater on the same night reggae star (and former Bendite) Matisyahu performed about a mile away at the Athletic Club of Bend — during an explosive lightning storm — and still drew more than 2,500 people.
Four years later, The Shins is ostensibly Mercer's solo project, and if that wasn't clear when he dismissed those band mates over the past couple years and replaced them with players who better fit his sonic ambitions, it certainly was when new promotional photos emerged featuring only one man.
Or when folks who showed up to see The Shins' last-minute show at Bend's Domino Room on Tuesday night found, available for purchase just inside the door, a poster to commemorate the show prominently featuring a silhouette of Mercer's famously bearded face.
For whatever reason, at some point along the way, Mercer decided to change how The Shins operate, at least to the outside observer. He turned it into a solo thing, and even retreated from the name for a while, trying his hand at acting and collaborating with super-producer Danger Mouse on a project called Broken Bells.
Here is what has not changed, however: James Mercer has few peers when it comes to writing a hooky pop-rock song. For all the changes in the band's world, Tuesday's show was a refreshing reminder of that.
Announced just eight days before, the show sold out in advance, and at 7:30 p.m., the line to get in stretched from the Domino Room's door to the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Hill Street. It was orderly and moved quickly, though most folks missed a weird, wobbly opening set by Portland's Hosannas.
By the time Mercer led the band on stage at 9:10 p.m., the room was packed to the back, with a healthy number of folks hanging out up on the balcony. It was the biggest Domino Room crowd I've seen since G. Love in 2009.
From there, it was a typical Shins show: solid, a tad shaky in places, spectacular in others. Mercer seemed skittish starting out, fidgeting under the lights and offering mostly awkward banter until about halfway through, when a raucous run through “So Says I” loosened him up and turned the crowd into what looked like a meeting of Pogo Enthusiasts of America.
The band hit all the highlights of its first three albums. “Australia,” “Kissing the Lipless” and “Know Your Onion!” were bouncier than a trampoline. “Mine's Not A High Horse” and “Sleeping Lessons” showcased the band's rhythmic eccentricities. Two old obscurities — “Sphangum Esplanade” and “When I Goose-Step” — harkened back to The Shins' gentle early days and gave veteran fans a special treat.
And “Phantom Limb,” “Girl Inform Me” and “Saint Simon” reminded me that no one does more with a “whoa” or an “ah” or a “la la la” than Mercer.
As you'd expect from a band still learning to play together, not everything was perfect. “Sea Legs” was snoozy (as it tends to be) and “New Slang” lacked its usual delicate charm thanks to a new keyboard-driven arrangement.
On the other hand, the only cover of the night, David Bowie's “Ashes to Ashes,” sounded so at home in this band's hands, folks who hadn't heard it before might've thought it was a song off The Shins' upcoming fourth album.
Speaking of which, as far as I can tell, Bend got the first look at two new songs. The first had a surf-y, submerged feel and lyrics that matched; Mercer sang about waves and driving to the sea and taking on water as Yuuki Matthews' rubbery bass line echoed around the room.
The second was a slow, sprawling tune that had a very laid back, classic rock feel, like a twangier Pink Floyd discovering the relaxed and rootsy wonders of the Hammond organ. (Richard Swift's work on the keys was prominent throughout the night.)
In total, the band played right at 90 minutes (minus the encore wait) and sounded pretty spot on, which isn't surprising given Mercer's obvious drive for perfection. He has surrounded himself with crack players who are more than skilled enough to carry off The Shins' airtight songs.
And because those songs are so great, I really enjoyed myself. But I couldn't shake a sort of somber yearning for the lineup that took The Shins to stardom. They were goofy and sometimes sloppy, sure, but they were a lot of fun, and they certainly had more personality than The Shins 2.0.
At a rock 'n' roll show, fun and personality count for something, at least.
As I said on my blog, this felt less like a Shins show and more like James Mercer & His Mercer-naries Play the Hits of The Shins. Which is fine, I guess. After all, it's Mercer's band, and he can run it however he wants. If I want to make personnel decisions in a band, I should start one.
I suppose I'm torn. It's about the songs, right? And the songs are great.
But really, it's never just about the songs.