Kicking it with The New Pornographers

There’s something about attending concerts in Omaha during the fall. I’ve attended three shows there, and all of them rank among my favorites.

Jars of Clay. “Much Afraid” tour. Aksarben. 1997.

Ben Folds Five. “Reinhold Messner” tour. Sokol Auditorium. 1999.

This week, I added The New Pornographers to the list. For their “Brill Bruisers” tour. At the Slowdown.

Not only did I add it to my list of great – fantastic, really – concerts I’ve attended, I knocked The New Pornographers – one of my favorite bands ever – off my concert bucket list.

Of course, I’ve been eyeing the opportunity since it was announced last summer. I held out on buying a ticket to be sure my schedule would allow it and Kates was ok was it. Then I pounced on a $28 ticket Monday night and was good to go. … On a sidenote, I gained admission at the venue by having the ticket downloaded on my iPhone and a woman scanned the QR code – on my phone – as I came through the door. Two thoughts about that – it blows my mind that we can do that, but it saddens me that collecting ticket stubs will never be the same.

And, holy man, I got my money’s worth.

When it was over, I didn’t want to leave. As many of my favorite concerts go, it was an unbelievable experience for me to see all of those artists together, on the same stage and be in their presence was amazing.

For all of their talent and successes as individual artists, it was fascinating to watch the eight of them – Neko Case, Carl Newman, Kathryn Calder, Dan Bejar, John Collins, Blaine Thurier, Todd Fancey and newest member Joe Seiders – on stage as a cohesive unit. They’re a musical machine. ... Admittedly, I was relieved and overjoyed to see Case join them, knowing the indie star she's become and that she performs sparingly with the band. ... For a taste, check out their 2007 show at Webster Hall.

Take this from a Milwaukee radio station where they played a session today before performing at the Pabst tonight ... 
The New Pornographers – fifteen years on – have been slugging it out longer than most groups, indie, super or otherwise; longer than the Beatles, Pixies, Smiths or Nirvana held it together. Comprised of largely Canadians of superlative musical lineage (Destroyer, Limblifter, Neko Case, A.C. Newman) the band released their sixth album – BBrill Bruisers – in late August and it continued an upward trend as their highest reaching US chart position, cracking the US Top 20 Album chart – their third to crack the Top 40 album charts – but really, who cares about the charts these days?
What's most remarkable about New Pornographers is that this is a SIDE GIG, what's usually a lark, maybe good for an album or two (still awaiting the THIRD Raconteurs album?) has become an ongoing concern with a catalog packing more power-pop hooks than a tackle box over six delightful albums. And while their longevity is in itself notable, critical acclaim has been overwhelming, with a career Metacritic score just shy of 80/100; their first four albums were on Village Voice's Pazz & Jop Poll, the year-end aggregation of hundreds of critics. If the band was a human being, they'd be getting their learner's permit.”
Every song last night sounded fresh with new flourishes of guitar and keyboard melodies and vocal harmonies that differed from their recorded originals. If it hadn't been for the strict no-video policy Tuesday night, I would have an awful lot of video evidence to share.

They kicked things off with, not surprisingly, with “Brill Bruisers,” their head-banging rocker that also launches their newest album of the same name. Then they rolled through “Myriad Harbour,” “Use It” and “Moves” – four of my favorites right off the bat – and I knew quickly that I was in for a memorable night.

Every song felt more epic than the one before. And every song was upbeat, with the exception of “Adventures in Solitude,” which began with a luscious, twinkling arrangement featuring Newman on an acoustic guitar and Calder on the keyboard.

Bejar joined the band on stage only for the songs on which he sang lead vocals – “Myriad Harbour,” “War On the East Coast” and “Born With a Sound” being my favorites – but every time he did was like a shot of candy for the audience.

They ended the first set with a sped up “Mass Romantic” that was so delightful it was among my favorites of the entire night. (Check out this video of the band performing it in Colorado last month for a whiff of my experience) I’m including “Backstairs” – a perfect example of the band playing as a cohesive unit – on that list, too.

They played two encores, ending the first with “Bleeding Heart Show” – arguably their most popular song – which the crowd began begging to hear just a few songs into the show. Early in the first encore, Newman finally answered another request by leaning into the mic and saying, politely, “Just wait a few minutes.” When they did play it, it was just as fantastic as I had hoped I thought they were going to blow the roof off the place.

Here’s a review from the Omaha World-Herald with which I agree almost word for word …
What a tight band. Four slamming singers, two banging guitarists, drums, bass and two members on keyboards and effects made for a fantastic tour through the band's catalog with a heavy emphasis on its latest album, “Brill Bruisers."

Four-part harmonies with Case, Newman, Bejar and Calder permeated the band's bouncey power pop. And with the exception of Bejar, even when they weren't in the spotlight, members of the band stayed front and center.

Arguably the biggest indie star onstage was Case and she often sang backing vocals or banged a tambourine when she wasn't lead.
As the reviewer noted, I, too enjoyed watching the group of fans “at stage right who bopped around, jumped up and danced like mad for the entire set. They were having the time of their lives, and it was inspirational.” In fact, much of the crowd last night seemed to be having the time of their lives. If my mouth wasn’t agape with awe, I was smiling in a euphoric state.

I can’t agree, however, with the reviewer’s take on the opening band, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. I hadn’t heard of them until last night, but think Duran Duran or INXS with a hint of Belle and Sebastian. There were few bright spots, and mostly their performance came across to me as pretentious, grating and forgettable. The lead vocalist and guitarist clearly was the decision maker of the group and seemed to take himself a little too seriously. To his left was the female vocalist who never touched an instrument, swayed her hips like a wind-up doll and was terribly pitchy. At stage right were a second guitarist and bass player who played along obediently. Only the drummer was somewhat interesting to watch.

After watching The Pains, it was more than a relief to see the New Pornographers come on and play such a great show.

In the moments of watching The New Pornographers, I had thought they played more of the “Bill Bruisers” album. Looking at the setlist now, they played almost half the songs on the new album, but I also would’ve enjoyed hearing “Fantasy Fools,” “Marching Orders” and “Wide Eyes.”

It’s only now – with my New Pornographers library playing on shuffle as I write this – that I am realizing all the great songs they didn’t play. I also would have enjoyed hearing “My Rights Versus Yours,” “All The Old Showstoppers,” “Go Places,” “All The Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth,” “Daughters of Sorrow,” “A Bite Out of My Bed,” “Your Hands (Together)” or “Jessica Numbers.” I would have been surprised to hear them play “Failsafe,” given its musical style compared to most of their stuff, but would have welcomed it, too.

I also can’t help but think, with last night’s New Pornographers show, about the concert streak I’ve been on for the last year and a half. A concert streak that I pin the start on Fun at Summerfest two summers ago. Since then? Guster at Summerfest on the Fourth of July. Ben Folds at the Kauffman Center with the Kansas City Symphony. Ingrid Michaelson at Summerfest. Nickel Creek at Kansas City’s Uptown Theater. And Tuesday night The New Pornographers.

Really, I could have listened and watched them perform for two more hours. Indeed, Newman, during a break late in the show, stopped and looked across the space, musing, “So many songs to pick from.”

Here’s the setlist:

1. Brill Bruisers
2. Myriad Harbour
3. Use It
4. Moves
5. War On the East Coast
6. The Bones of an Idol
7. Jackie, Dressed in Cobras
8. Another Drug Deal of the Heart
9. The Laws Have Changed
10. You Tell Me Where
11. Testament to Youth in Verse
12. Crash Years
13. Adventures in Solitude
14. Jackie
15. Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk
16. Backstairs
17. Silver Jenny Dollar
18. Champions of Red Wine
19. Born With a Sound
20. Mass Romantic

Encore 1
21. Challengers
22. Dancehall Domine
23. The Bleeding Heart Show

Encore 2
24. Sing Me Spanish Techno
25. The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism

About that new album …

Aside from hearing the “Brill Bruisers” single and seeing them perform it on “The Late Show with David Letterman” ...

... my first listen of the album didn’t come until Monday night, via YouTube, while I was buying my ticket and getting myself psyched for the show.

I enjoy it so much, I bought the CD with little hesitation at the merchandise booth after the show. And I’ve been listening to it on repeat ever since. Indeed, it's a celebration album, and I hear ‘70s music influences all over the place, from ELO, to Fleetwood Mac, to ABBA and even The Carpenters. It’s officially my favorite New Pornographers album.

A great review from the folks at Paste …. (along with another good read about the making of it.)
Every one of their albums has been sequenced using the same precepts that Nick Hornby set up for mixtapes in the book High Fidelity: they start off with a corker of an opening track, rein it in on the next song and then move forward in incremental steps up or down in terms of energy to keep you (at least upon the first spin) guessing. What you listen closely for are the subtle shifts: the moments when Dan Bejar drops his toothsome power-pop gems into the mix, and how songwriter/leader AC Newman uses Neko Case’s pliable and powerful voice. Otherwise, the ride is comfortable and familiar. 

All of that is in full flower on Brill Bruisers: the crashing title track opens the album before ceding the path to the lighter, Case-centric “Champions of Red Wine,” which sidles into the rough and steady caress of “Fantasy Fools.” Eventually Bejar shows up in his typical spot at track four with the crackling “War On The East Coast,” and on and on, back and forth until track 13, the Sweet-like stomp of “You Tell Me Where” fades into the distance.

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