There’s something bittersweet about the final day of Summerfest. Vendors are packing away mountains of fresh roasted nuts, patrons are desperately stumbling around like its closing time, and the final serviceable cover of “Don’t Stop Believin'” is wafting from the Summertini-soaked confines of JoJo’s Martini Lounge. Like the end of a long weekend or the last day of school, it’s sad to see it all go—yet there’s a nagging feeling of wanting to move on, getting back to a regularly scheduled program (already in progress). Even for those who don’t partake in the Big Gig, its annual passing is a sign that summer, sadly, is moving on.
So, on Sunday night, at the BMO Harris Pavilion, under a full moon, The Shins sent off Summerfest’s 50th edition with a warm, gracious, and celebratory set. Touching on songs both beloved and half-forgotten from their 16-year discography, James Mercer and company showed that behind all the hoopla, all the distractions, and all the 360-degree VR dome projections, Summerfest’s main draw is simple: live music.
The Shins haven’t played Milwaukee in a decade, so they can be forgiven for opening their Summerfest set with the (admittedly unimpeachable) theme song to Laverne & Shirley. Not that it was intended as a dig: Mercer seemed a bit flabbergasted at the size of the crowd (“I’m pretty stoked to see so many people here. This is crazy.”), and he repeatedly thanked the “beautiful” people of the “beautiful” city of Milwaukee.
Against a DayGlo skull backdrop reminiscent of the cover of the new (and thoroughly excellent) Heartworms, the six-piece Shins served up songs like “Australia” (from 2007’s Wincing The Night Away), “Saint Simon” (from 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow), and “The Rifle’s Spiral” (from 2012’s Port Of Morrow). The new album got plenty of play, too, represented by full-bodied renditions of “Name For You,” “So Now What,” “Painting A Hole,” and more. The poppy “Half A Million” (“I take the drugs but the drugs won’t take”) got special attention, with Mercer describing it as the band’s next single and boldly informing the just-packed-enough Pavilion that hearing it live for the first time was a “you were there when” moment.
The Shins’ music has always been a delicate construction of knotty songwriting and intricate instrumentation. While never completely lost, that combination was occasionally buried in a live setting. Some early songs felt a tad rushed and overly bombastic (the lovely “So Now What” seemed especially drum- and bass-heavy), and the stadium-ready stage show—all strobe lights and smoke—was sometimes at odds with the more ornate numbers. But it often worked like gangbusters, too: “Harder” songs like “Painting A Hole” perfectly reframed the fragile Shins as a straight-up rock band. “Phantom Limb” even featured the audience swaying their arms back and forth and taking over on the “Oh, oh-oh”s. A sea of lighters wouldn’t have been out of place.
The highlights were plentiful: Chutes Too Narrow‘s “Gone For Good” was reimagined as a dreamy lullaby complete with Mercer on harmonica, the new “Mildenhall” served as an origin story for the frontman, and the encore lovingly checked off the new “The Fear” and the forever-adored “New Slang” (from the band’s 2001 debut Oh, Inverted World). Plus, Mercer took time out to thank his crew, and he looked a little like The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt. Oh, and the bass drum had “The Shins” written in a goofy Svengoolie horror font.
In the end, The Shins (perhaps inadvertently) gave a shout-out to the Summerfest 50 that was. Their final encore number was a medley: a whole lot of “Sleeping Lessons” and a good chunk of Tom Petty’s un-killable “American Girl.” It was a joyous, unabashedly rock and roll finale, with Mercer pumping his fists in the air and the assembled devotees responding in kind. Take it easy baby. Make it last all night.
The lights came up and the crowd filed out, throwing themselves into the sweaty Summerfest fray for the final time. Over at JoJo’s Martini Lounge, Cold Sweat And The Brew City Horns—”Wisconsin’s premier show band”—played on.