Photo credit: Jason Green
There aren’t many bands worth paying to see perform live twice in one week, but the New Pornographers are most certainly one of them. Which is why, even with tickets procured for the band’s performance at the Maha Music Festival in Omaha, Nebraska, the following weekend, your author still happily ponied up to see the band play a longer set at the Delmar Hall, the most intimate venue the band has played in St. Louis since the loss of Mississippi Nights. Needless to say, it was worth every penny.
The band burst out of the gate with “Moves,” the song’s crunching guitars and ominous strings (courtesy of newly minted touring violinist and vocalist Simi Stone) setting the tone for a night packed with the band’s trademark off-kilter take on power pop. From there, it was on to a one-two-three punch of the band’s hugest, catchiest melodies in the form of “High Ticket Attractions” (the earworm of a single from the band’s latest, this year’s Whiteout Conditions, featuring infectious call-and-response vocals between frontman A.C. Newman and keyboardist Kathryn Calder), “The Laws Have Changed,” and “Sing Me Spanish Techno.” The band’s triumphant new single and two of their most perfect pop ditties? The crowd was in the palm of their hand.
Which meant, of course, that it was time for a change in tempo. “It’s a weird time to make small talk,” Newman joked. “Do you guys mind if I rage against the machine?” Before kicking off the more mid-tempo “Colosseums,” Newman responded to the crowd’s chuckles with a deadpanned “Fuck you,” waited a beat, then cracked, “I won’t do what you tell me.” Perfection.
This hilarious aside was the best evidence of a shift in the band’s live persona on this tour. Whenever the New Pornographers tour, it’s always a question as to what members of the somewhat-supergroup will be in attendance. The band’s output on album succeeds due to the interplay between the band’s army of singers: Newman’s power pop melodies and often-nonsensical-yet-still-pregnant-with-meaning-somehow lyrics, Dan Bejar’s swelling romanticism and surreal flights of fancy, Neko Case’s brassy force-of-nature of a voice, and Kathryn Calder’s sweet harmonies. This time out, the band hit the road without Case (presumably recording a new album, I hope I hope I hope) or Bejar (who does not appear on Whiteout Conditions but is still listed as a member on the band’s site; his band Destroyer’s new album ken drops in October). Having seen the band in various combinations, I can confirm that in the past it was always quite evident that whenever Bejar or Case skipped a tour, Something Was Missing. Without their big personalities (Case simply owns every stage she steps on, while Bejar punctuates the shows by drifting on and off of the stage like a gloriously drunken whirligig), the band always seemed to have an attitude of just keeping their heads down and blasting through the songs. The music was always impeccable, but the stagecraft could sometimes feel a little reserved.
Not this time: the band finally cracked the formula. Newman was a strong presence at the front of the stage, singing and playing his guitar passionately while moving around the stage to engage his band and the crowd. Calder, too, demanded attention from her side of the stage with a number of strong vocal performances, whether filling Case’s gigantic shoes (giving a sweeter edge to “This is the World of the Theater,” bringing plenty of the swagger and swing that “Mass Romantic” requires) or perfectly harmonizing with Stone (“Whiteout Conditions” took on a spacier vibe than the LP, to great effect). The absolute highlight, both of the set in general and Calder’s contribution in particular, was “Adventures in Solitude,” a tenderly sweet ballad that built off of gently plucked acoustic guitar, piano, and Newman and Calder’s sweet harmonies, slowly adding tambourine and violin as the song built at a slow burn. Finally, at the song’s halfway point, it exploded into pure pop bliss, Calder taking over lead vocals with a passionate and gorgeously sung solo that was the highest peak in a concert filled with high points.
The band also explored the various facets of its personality outside of power pop blasts and beautiful ballads. Their electronica-tinged album Brill Bruisers made its presence known with the appropriately danceable “Dancehall Domine” and the blippy “Champions of Red Wine.” Things turned heavy for “The Jessica Numbers,” a song that Newman introduced as “strange” because it was a rare song of his own that, after all these years, he still really liked. The band shifted into the song’s buzzsaw guitars without a stutter, guitarist Todd Fancey grabbing attention with a vicious solo, possibly the only moment of the night where lead guitar was deployed from the arsenal in the manner that a normal band would use it. Stone, whose vocal harmonies and violin helped flesh out the band’s live presence throughout the night, took a lead vocal turn on the vaguely krautrock-inspired “Play Money” to wonderful effect. Even Bejar’s trademark style slipped in with a surprising but much appreciated run through his “Testament to Youth in Verse,” Newman taking lead in impeccable fashion and encouraging the crowd to harmonize along to the no-no-nos that build up the song’s cathartic crescendo.
Wrapping up the main set with the expected hits (“Use It” and “Mass Romantic,” both much appreciated), the band left the stage only briefly. The encore exploded to life with “Brill Bruisers” and its shoutalong-worthy “bo-ba, ba-ba-ba-bo” melody, then slowed down for “The Bleeding Heart Show.” This song can be, and probably should be, the band’s closer to every show, and it was used to wonderful effect here. Like “Adventures in Solitude” earlier in the night, the song started at a slow burn before boiling over for the outro, with Calder belting out “We have arrived!” over a sea of “hey-la” backing vocals. No sooner had they “arrived” then the band departed, leaving the audience with dozens of perfect pop melodies ringing in their ears and making this writer wonder how he’d make it six long days before getting to see the New Pornographers again. | Jason Green
High Ticket Attractions
The Laws Have Changed
Sing Me Spanish Techno
Champions of Red Wine
The Jessica Numbers
Adventures in Solitude
All the Old Showstoppers
This Is the World of the Theater
Testament to Youth in Verse
Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk
The Bleeding Heart Show