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Culture in Context

Wilco and The Shins take L.A. by storm

Entertainment has progressively become more individualistic as the centuries flitted by. Let’s take music for our subject, shall we? Bygone and faraway generations shuffled disparate sounds into aesthetically viable packages with the same vigor as our own age does. It would do us well to remember that music once had to be created anew to be heard at all. Before recording, iPods and rampant illegal downloading, music was performance or nothing at all. As far as I’m concerned, the last two concerts I’ve been to — Wilco and The Shins — were enough to convince me that perhaps our forebears had it right.

The two bands traverse very different sonic territories, yet maintain a very similar high ground in the indie sphere. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and James Mercer of The Shins are Olympians in the underground music world. Perhaps “underground” isn’t the best adjective because these were the men to bring different-sounding music to peek from below the surface in recent years. They are architects of music that permeates the subconscious of those who live and listen alternatively.

Wilco show was an instant classic

This Sept. 30 was bound to be memorable. Wilco was playing the Hollywood Bowl and the ticket in my pocket was assurance enough that this was going to be one of the better concerts I’d ever have the pleasure of seeing. This was the band behind 1996’s “Being There,” a Stones-soaked set of sing-alongs that goes on for two rollicking compact discs. “Sky Blue Sky,” “A Ghost is Born” and “Wilco (The Album)” were other past entries in an almost pitch-perfect discography. Most importantly, these guys had come up with “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” a 2002 release that can be called truly legendary without the danger of hyperbole.

Tweedy took the stage around 9 p.m, his band following close behind. His wardrobe could have been stolen from Neil Young’s closet and somehow that’s oddly fitting, even necessary. As they opened with a song from their most recent album, “The Whole Love,” any fears they wouldn’t live up to their reputation were assuaged.

Each song reassured other bands that they should be taking their cues from Wilco, but that Wilco needn’t take cues from anyone. Their blend of classic Americana with sonic experimentation has long defied comparison but they perform with charming, rootsy humility. After two encores, I left more than satisfied. Give a listen to “Kicking Television” if you want to have a taste of what I was lucky enough to experience firsthand.

The Shins manifest their indie pop genius live

Flash forward to the second of October, if you please, and picture yourself at the Gibson Amphitheater. I only caught a few minutes of opening act Washed Out’s last song, but its synthy, atmospheric pulsation served almost as a detox, practically whispering: “Leave the stresses of day-to-day life behind you, we’re here to calm you down. Because you’re about to see The Shins.”

Mercer’s band has secured a place in Webster’s Dictionary as the practical definition of modern indie pop. The jangly guitars and melancholic lyrics he deals in call back memories of classic bands like The Smiths and The Byrds in a postmodern package. His sound has always been his own and his high-pitched vocal tenor remains one of the most well-loved and accessible around today.

The concert starts. “Kissing the Lipless,” the first song on 2003’s “Chutes Too Narrow,” emits from the lips of James Mercer and, as a matter of course, all of the audience’s as well. It took about three seconds to realize everyone in this outdoor auditorium would be screaming out every syllable of every song. These were the songs of our collective adolescence; the sonorous and simple jams of our collective youthful innocence’s last days.

I could compare and contrast for you here, say which concert was better and which one was worse. This would not be constructive to either of us though. Both concerts reinforced everything I have always adored about music. Alone with Wilco on our stereo or The Shins on our record players, we get a chance to wind down a world of conflicting messages into three minutes of beautiful simplicity. In concert, the effect is amplified. For here we have creation, assembly and community all at once. Your favorite songs are the favorite songs of many others and here you all are, singing. And it’s times like these the light starts to break through.

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