As the actual Shins took the Phoenix stage, it was immediately apparent that the group are James Mercer's solo conduit now, as his new backing band includes none of the members that helped write their three records. Mercer and co. seemed to be under-rehearsed and shaky from the get-go, as they performed a fizzling "Caring Is Creepy" to a very forgiving audience. Early jitters continued through "Australia," and Mercer decided to forgo the upper register of his vocals in "Mine's Not a High Horse."
Most of the band's best songs of the night were their mid-tempo ballads: "Phantom Limb" came across well, as did "Saint Simon." But these are the Shins' simplest songs, and the mark of a great live band comes from their ability to bring life to the challenging parts of their catalogue, such as the excellent "Kissing the Lipless," whose performance lacked the trademark snappiness of the recorded version.
The Shins warmed up by the end -- "Sea Legs," "So Says I" and an encore performance of "Sleeping Lessons" were highlights, and they played some likable new songs -- but unshakeable was the feeling that without the departed Marty Crandall and Jesse Sandoval, the Shins just aren't the Shins. Gone are the tight harmonies and witty stage banter that marked the group's early shows. In their place was Mercer, singing alone, promising a new album "really soon!" Mercer fans might be excited, but what about Shins fans?