The Shins have a leg up

plus interview with opening act Cass McCombs

Shins have two-night stand

Indie rock favorite The Shins graced the stages of The Black Cat on Tuesday and Wednesday nights for its first-ever stop in D.C. Wisely adding a second night to the stay, the two sold-out shows drew an excited audience that eagerly anticipated the live Shins experience.

Cass McCombs opened for the Shins on both nights. McCombs' Monitor Records album "A" has been earning critical acclaim since its release in 2003. McCombs is based in Baltimore, also the home of Monitor, and came down to The Black Cat for both nights to play for the eager audience. The down-tempo nature of McCombs' music made his set sort of shoe-gazy, which was rather hit-or-miss with the crowd's mood. The more upbeat numbers were really well received, and the strength of the entire "Cass McCombs ensemble" shone through. People entered The Black Cat on Tuesday and Wednesday not knowing who Cass McCombs was and left with a copy of "A" in hand. He's earning a name for himself in a methodical, underground sort of way.

The most painful part of the night was the wait between bands, where whenever anyone who appears slightly "rock 'n' roll" comes on stage, there is an explosion of applause and subsequent disappointment. Such was the case Wednesday night, as Shins fans grew antsier with each passing minute. The buzz of excitement when the band took the stage was tactile in the air. The Shins immediately dove into the humble clapping that starts off "Kissing the Lipless," the first track on its latest SubPop release, "Chutes Too Narrow."

Singer James Mercer's inimitable voice soared above the chorus, and the crowd roared. Always armed with a witty quip, keyboardist Marty Crandall promised the audience that The Shins would be rocking extra hard. It would be difficult for them not to, as the songs on "Chutes Too Narrow" are so intricate and attentive. Yet the band remained true to its older catalog, even getting old school with "Eating Styes from Elephants Eyes" off the "Nature Bears a Vacuum" EP.

Mercer's voice, which has a history of losing intonation with the changing winds, was dead-on each night, blissfully hitting the high note toward the end of "Pink Bullets." Crowd favorites included "Young Pilgrims" off the new album, and "New Slang" and "Know Your Onion!" off their first album "Oh, Inverted World." The Black Cat was filled with a dreamy hush as The Shins expressed their heartfelt words with "New Slang," easily one of the prettiest songs heard all night. One of the biggest rewards of seeing the Shins live in this post-"Chutes Too Narrow" era is being able to hear all of the "Oh, Inverted World" material played with the polished clarity that The Shins gave their latest album. "Oh, Inverted World" is occasionally buried by its cloudy, lo-fi recording, but when so lucidly played live, the songs are really brought to life and sound even better than they do on the album.

The listening world suspected that The Shins were on to something good with the mature, refined release of "Chutes Too Narrow" last year. After two nights of The Shins demonstrating this live, all suspicions have been affirmed. Washington, let's consider ourselves lucky to have witnessed something good.

McCombs opens for Shins, opens up for The Eagle

The Eagle exchanged words with Cass McCombs, opening act for The Shins on Tuesday and Wednesday, about his recent releases, working with various people in the music industry and how the band operates.

Eagle: Musically, is 'Cass McCombs' a person or a band? How much of the writing is influenced by the individual or by the group as a whole?

McCombs: I guess it matters in what context. Live, we are a band like any other, we communicate very well with one another. In composition it is different. One thing is constant though: I write the lyrics.

Eagle: What would you note as the biggest difference between the "Not the Way" EP and "A"? What kind of evolution took place between the two?

McCombs: ["Not the Way"] was recorded on quarter-inch tape. "A" was recorded on half-inch tape.

Eagle: Portland, Oregon is getting a name for itself as a stomping ground for indie rock's finest. Tell me about your time in Portland, if it had an effect on your songs and what that effect was.

McCombs: Beautiful town. Splendid parks. I had a fine experience there, but it's a bit inaccurate to say I lived in Portland; I parked my body there for a spell. I remember I wrote "a comedian ..." in Portland, though.

Eagle: I know you've done some playing with Will Oldham/Palace, The Oxes and at SXSW. How would you describe the way those have influenced you?

McCombs: Infinite love to The Oxes, the three wise men. Bearing gifts, they welcomed me into the profession, this doomed world.

Eagle: In 2003 you recorded a coveted John Peel session in London for BBC Radio 1. What was that like?

McCombs: It was nothing less than a complete honor.

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