One of the best things about my job is being surprised by an artist and/or a show.
And by that measure alone, Memorial Day weekend at Bend’s Les Schwab Amphitheater was a success. Two of the three nights of concerts — Tenacious D and The Sights on Saturday, and Beck and Metric on Sunday — were, to me, somewhere in the neighborhood of shockingly good. The third — The Shins, The Head and The Heart and Blind Pilot on Friday — was exactly what I expected it to be.
Friday: The Shins and The Head and The Heart
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That’s not to say The Shins were bad. They weren’t. They were good. Any rock concert featuring James Mercer’s perfectly snappy pop-rock tunes is going to be good.
They just were … The Shins. Mercer cracked a couple of jokes into the mic, and keys man Richard Swift made mysterious googly eyes here and there, but generally speaking, the Portland-based five-piece charged through a nearly two-hour set as if their appearance fee depended on displaying as little emotion as possible.
But first things first: After terrible weather for much of Friday, the skies cleared just in time for opening bands Blind Pilot (who I missed) and The Head and The Heart, a rousing folk-pop band from Seattle that is going to be huge. For TH&TH’s set, the temperature was actually pleasant, though it would drop fast as the sun did the same thing.
TH&TH — six folks totaling about 700 pounds, I figured — played mostly songs from their excellent 2010 debut album, starting off a bit rough but finding a gentle groove in “Cats and Dogs” and “Ghosts.” After fiddler/vocalist Charity Rose Thielen shouted out the Red Robin across the Deschutes, the band’s 45-minute set peaked with the handclap-heavy crescendo of “Lost In My Mind” and the pretty, somber “Winter Song,” about the uncertainties of life and missing good times gone by … as pretty much all TH&TH’s songs are.
During the break, I made a run back to the food vendors, where lines were the longest I’ve ever seen them. At least one was already out of product, and I heard another say later that they’d sold out of pretty much everything. A combination of the big crowd (5,200ish) and unsure planning by the vendors, I’d bet.
At 8:15 p.m., Mercer and his band took the stage and bounced into “Kissing the Lipless,” one of The Shins’ more rocking songs. For the first few songs, the sound was not great and Mercer’s voice was too low in the mix, though that seemed to get better as the band did two of the more upbeat songs — “Simple Song” and “Bait and Switch” — from its new album “Port of Morrow.”
At one point, Mercer asked the crowd, “What do you guys make over there?” while pointing to the Old Mill’s smokestacks. “Maybe these swallows,” he replied to himself, as a small bird swooped past the stage. Even during songs, Mercer was distracted by the swallows, eyeballing them all over the sky as he played and sang.
Highlights of the set included a punchy new song, “The Rifle’s Spiral,” into which Mercer poured more oomph than usual, as well as older cuts like “So Says I,” “Saint Simon,” the slow-building “Sleeping Lessons” and the irresistible, wordless chorus of “Phantom Limb.” A slow and quiet version of the band’s breakthrough song, “New Slang,” was pierced by the dissonant sound of a distant train’s horn.
After 90 minutes of playing by the numbers, the band seemed intent on flying its freak flag in the encore. Mercer did a gorgeous solo acoustic version of “September” (“New Slang II” I thought, halfway through). Then he led The Shins through a space-rock take on “Port of Morrow” and an extremely extended psych jam tacked on to the end of “One By One All Day.” It was a solid ending, if for no other reason than at least the band did something that veered away from its very buttoned-up playbook.
Sunday: Beck and Metric
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Speaking of playbooks, when veteran electro-rock-hop mingler Beck last visited Bend in 2008, he seemed to have tossed his in the trash. Back then, the guy looked and sounded lost, playing his songs with no personality whatsoever.
So it was definitely a nice surprise when he showed up engaged, into it, smiling and having fun on Sunday night. It helped, I imagine, that he has his classic backing band from the ’90s back together, including guitarist Smokey Hormel, bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, drummer Joey Waronker and keys/utility man Roger Manning Jr. Being surrounded by those guys and their vibe clearly boosted Beck’s energy level as he came out — dressed in black, wearing a large hat and looking a lot like Bob Dylan, I’d say — and kicked off his set with a bunch of songs from nearly 20 years ago: “Devil’s Haircut,” “Hotwax,” “Sissyneck” and his signature, breakthrough song, “Loser.” At one point during that one, Meldal-Johnsen approached the mic and just screamed “1993!” Yeah. It sure felt that way. By the spark in his eye, I think Beck thought so, too.
In the most perfectly timed moment of the entire weekend, Beck brought out an acoustic guitar just as the sun was setting and did a three-song mini-set of slow numbers from “Sea Change,” playing “The Golden Age,” the devastatingly sad “Lost Cause” and “Sunday Sun,” a lush, droning song with a sort of celestial quality. Listening to it as the cotton-candy pink faded from the cloudy sky was positively sublime.
From there, the show was basically a reminder of just how many hits Beck has scored over the past two decades. He did “Think I’m In Love” and “Modern Guilt” and “New Pollution” and “Gamma Ray” and “Girl.” He played a stanza of “Tropicalia” in response to a request by a young fan. He said he’d been in town for three days “trying to crack the code of Bend” and improvised a short tune about the Boot Barn, the Pretty Pussycat and the “smokestacks with no smoke.” And he ended his main set with “Where It’s At,” a party-friendly jam that attracted a rush of people to the front of the 4,500-strong crowd. My elbow room disappeared instantly as Beck sang “Bottles and cans and just clap your hands,” though it appeared most people were not clapping but in fact waving their hands in the hair and jumping, jumping, jumping.
The encore is where things went haywire, in a good way. The band did “Soldier Jane” and a song I didn’t recognize, both heavy and with the volume seemingly turned up a few notches. They were muddy and sinister, and not your typical crowd-pleasing encores. Or so I thought, until they followed those with “Mutherf-ker” (only one asterisk because the song title is misspelled), the chugging, seething paranoid-stoner jam from “Mellow Gold” that I would’ve guessed had been excised from the live rotation, oh, 15 to 20 years ago. It was a puzzling but wonderful choice, one that I’m sure left a large chunk of the Schwab crowd bewildered … which is a good thing. (He ended with “E-Pro,” but in my wide-smiling mind, “Mutherf-ker” was Beck’s bizarre goodbye to Bend for now.)
Side note, because this is getting to be too long: The Canadian synth-rock band Metric opened the show and was really impressive. Their sound was both catchy and more muscular than I expected, and their set focused on songs from their new album, though the highlight was the kraut-punk pulse of “Gold Guns Girls” from their previous record, “Fantasies.” Frontwoman Emily Haines was, as always, a joy to watch, making Metric an opener well worth showing up on time for.
Saturday: Tenacious D
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Detroit garage/soul band The Sights might’ve been that, too, on Saturday night, but a pre-show party kept me from the amphitheater until they were already done. In fact, I missed the first song of Tenacious D’s set also, which was a bummer because I missed the inflation of the giant phallus-shaped winged creature that anchored the band’s stage setup. It was, uh, very detailed, and so tall the bird’s wings disappeared behind the lighting rigs hanging from the Schwab’s roof. As the lights changed color, so did the bird/phallus.
If your sense of humor is as sophomoric as mine — and Tenacious D’s — it was hilarious.
So, confession time: I took notes about the show on my phone, but now I can’t find them. I’m not sure it matters much, however, because the story here was the scene: A sea of people, crammed in like sardines all the way from the stage to the soundbooth, and providing sparser coverage all the way up onto the amphitheater’s hills near the back of the venue. Just eyeballing it, I could tell it was the biggest crowd I’d seen there since at least Willie Nelson in 2007.
Turns out there were nearly 6,000 there, the largest crowd at the Schwab since Ben Harper in 2006, and the seventh largest ever at the place.
And this was not a Bend crowd. This was a crowd of burly folks dressed in black, with beards everywhere (not that beards are rare in Bend, but these were more like metal-dude beards). Things got a little squishy up near the front, with women being pulled to safety by security, and they got a little rowdy in my area, too; I personally witnessed a couple of near-fights, but for the most part people were in a celebratory mood. After all: The D was back! In Bend!
And the band delivered. I’ve never been a huge fan, really. The D’s breakthrough came when I was living in the wilderness in Idaho, so I kind of missed out on the phenomenon of their first album. As a result, I had heard exactly one Tenacious D song before this show was booked, and that was the big single “Tribute.”
I did know, however, that the guys — movie star Jack Black and his sidekick Kyle Gass — are perfectly capable of writing very funny, acoustically driven hard-rock songs with catchy choruses worthy of a “real” pop-rock band.
But I was not prepared for just how solid, musically, this show would be. It was not a comedy act sprinkled with songs, but a real-deal concert (and plenty of comedy) delivered ably by a powerhouse band. Again, I’m lacking my notes, but they did the title track from their new album “Rize of the Fenix,” plus “Low Hangin’ Fruit,” “Roadie,” “Deth Starr” and “Throw Down,” each with its own epic chorus.
One of the best bits of the night was “The Metal,” a song about the invincibility of the metal genre. Black and Gass jumped all around the stage as their band ably rocked, and hard. Also fun: “Beezleboss” (with The D’s guitarist playing Satan) followed by “Tribute,” in which Black and Gass defeat the devil by playing the best song in the world. (“Tribute” is not the best song in the world, of course. It is just a tribute.)
From their first album, The D played “Kielbasa” and “Wonderboy,” and maybe some others, I can’t remember. At various times, they were joined onstage by a Sasquatch and a dancing squid. There was a bit of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” in there somewhere. And Black was in fine form all night, seducing Bend with his silver-tongued banter, and even praising the cheeseburger he had earlier in the day from Cheerleaders Grill on Third Street. He was every bit the charming, hilarious and occasionally filthy MC you might’ve expected, assuming you think he’s funny to begin with. I know some folks don’t. I do.
All in all, Saturday night was the apex of an epic weekend at the Schwab, one highlighted by sharp bookings and good bands, bigger-than-expected crowds (the walk-up sales for Tenacious D were huge, I heard) and the best weather I can remember for Memorial Day weekend concerts. I would venture to say it was the finest kickoff weekend of any at the amphitheater over the past six years, and that’s saying something. And given that opening weekend is a vital part of what the venue tries to do each summer, it was a tremendous way to set the tone for the summer of 2012. Let’s hope the rest of the season follows suit.