The Shins, Husky @ Hordern Pavilion, Sydney (25/7/2012)

James Mercer, even after over a decade with The Shins and having overhauled his entire band personnel since 2007’s Wincing The Night Away, holds a happy knack of being all things to all people. The diversity of the crowd at the Hordern is testament to that – hobbling baby-boomers share the floor with flush-faced teens, with everything in between. There is the pop fan who came to them through the mainstream success of New Slang, and then those with a more discerning finger on the indie pulse, who got on board with Oh, Inverted World and then saw them achieve some kind of perfection on the magnificent Wincing The Night Away. Mercer’s sound is that rare thing: sophisticated and with layers, yet accessible in its energy and sing-along potential.

That quality remains with this year’s Port of Morrow, yet the difference a whole new band brings to Mercer is startling. Look at his choice of clothes, for instance: when touring the previous record it was all waistcoats, top-hats, smart shirts and shiny shoes. Tonight, he takes the stage in a check shirt and jeans. The inference is that he is more relaxed now, among musicians (including the formidable Richard Swift on keys – one many feel is at least Mercer’s musical equal) that he has more faith in.

Husky, in the meantime, enjoyed yet another support slot with a major international act. The evidence tonight was of a band hitting their straps like never before in a live capacity – and in this way they were perfect, even if their songs, while pleasant, are not quite as profound as many perceive them to be.

That has never been a problem for any incarnation of The Shins. The sextet, basically an entirely new band, were predictably much more animated when they played songs from Port Of Morrow – with good reason. With the minor abomination that is second single It’s Only Life (an excursion into uncharacteristically soppy, MOR territory, gotten out of the way early tonight), the new work is exceptional. Mercer and his team are on fire throughout the imperious title track, Bait and Switch, The Rifle’s Spiral and Simple Song, and it’s true, they sound tighter than ever before. The Wincing The Night Away songs are also in fine fettle (or perhaps it’s just that it’s been fully half a decade since the record came out), with Sleeping Lessons perhaps the most ferocious performance of an evening where feverish renderings of some elegant songs were not in short supply.

The dips came with older material. Caring Is Creepy, Know Your Onion and Kissing The Lipless have lost a certain lustre, perhaps because the original personnel are absent – although this is more than made up for with the evening’s sublime emphasis on Port Of Morrow.

It was somewhat inevitable that the most lethargic song would be New Slang. And as a hundred phones went up among an audience hellbent on capturing the song that made them famous, it became obvious that the days when that song mattered are long gone, and that The Shins of now are beyond the fairly limited scope that New Slang exemplifies. Given the famous wilfulness of Mercer, it would have been no surprise if they hadn’t played it at all – the night certainly would have lacked nothing if that had been the case.