Tuesday, April 19, 2011

No Other Show Like It Round Here: The New Pornographers in Concert

I haven’t been a fan of the New Pornographers for nearly as long as I should have been, or nearly as long as you might guess based on what I feed into Pandora and Last.fm on a daily basis. One play of “Sing Me Spanish Techno” last September on my “Indie Pop Bonanza” Pandora station, though, and I was A Fan.  Call them whatever adjective of indie you like, or invoke the “supergroup” label if you must, but it doesn't matter.  These guys make the exact brand of music I like: happy, poppy music with conventional tonality and familiar structure but themes and vocabulary that are anything but ordinary.

The only complaints I can make about this show pertain to things that happened before the New Pornographers themselves started playing.  One of the biggest issues with the show was the merch stand, of all things—and when the merch stand is among your biggest complaints, you’re attending a fine concert indeed.  (Bands, do your male fans a favor and make your shirts available in men’s sizes other than small.)  Dejected (but twenty bucks less poor), I sat through forty-five minutes of opener and half an hour of set change before Neko, A.C., and company finally took the stage.

It's my policy not to comment on openers unless they're any good, so I'll skip to my Concert Gripe of the Day: unnecessarily long set changes.  Clear some guitars out of the way, put some new ones out.  Drag a drum kit twenty feet.  Arrange stools, microphones, bottles of water.  Then let the band play.  It really shouldn't take more than ten or fifteen minutes, and it rarely does, but for reasons that can only be related to the venue wanting to drum up drink sales, we're forced to gaze at the empty stage for fifteen more minutes.

But after the wait always comes good music, so it's something the concertgoer must be willing to endure... and if nothing else, the New Pornographers make good music.  The opening number, "Moves," played out almost like an extended sound-check (something that theoretically could have been done during that fifteen minutes of nothing).  Neko Case in particular took charge of the stage like a general on her battlefield, giving cryptic hand signs to offstage sound guys and sprinting to bark a few seconds of orders in between most of the first six or seven songs.

It was good to see Neko finally start rocking a few songs into the set--"tentative" is not exactly the word you'd usually associate with the woman responsible for the vocals on "Letter From An Occupant," but for the first ten minutes, she seemed strangely out of her element.  It seems utterly ludicrous to associate stage fright with someone who's been at this for at least ten years, but whether it was nerves, an overriding concern for the sound balance, or second-guessing where she'd told the Second Cavalry to make its charge, she settled down soon enough.  By the time they started jamming about "The Slow Descent into Alcoholism," the entire band was brimming with an energy that lasted another entire hour.

Along the way, the New Pornographers completely nailed "Mass Romantic," "It's Only Divine Right," "Crash Years," "Jackie, Dressed In Cobras," and probably a dozen more songs I'm forgetting.  "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk" still has never failed to make me smile.  "The Bleeding Heart Show" was exactly the right way to end the show (though the band missed a golden opportunity for audience participation in the "hey-la" out-tro), "Challengers" was the encore song I never knew I always wanted to hear, and "Sing Me Spanish Techno" made a triumphant actual end to the show.

Three more things made this show awesome.  First, even people who weren't too familiar with the band had a great time, which is a sure sign the band is doing something right.  Second, blessedly few concert fouls were committed--even the weed cloud kept itself at bay until nearly the end of the show.  And third, like any "hey, let's get together and tour for fun and profit" shows, it wasn't tied to an album, and there was a legitimate chance the band will play any given song in their discography; if I'd made a wish list of, say, ten songs I would have wanted the New Pornographers to play, they would have hit at least eight of them.

Currently listening: "Home Is A Fire," from the soon-to-be-released Death Cab album

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