Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The New Pornographers @ Battery Park

Setlist (Approximate)

All of the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth//Use It//The Laws Have Changed//All the Old Showstoppers//Jackie Dressed in Cobras//Mutiny I Promise You//Mass Romantic//The Spirit of Giving//The Bones of an Idol//My Rights Versus Yours//Sing Me Spanish Techno//Go Places//From Blown Speakers//Twin Cinema//Bleeding Heart Show

Encore: These are the Fables//Testament to Youth in Verse//Slow Descent into Alcoholism

I’ve seen The New Pornographers a couple of times before, but this show was the first time I’ve seen them with Neko Case. It’s not quite the full band, Dan Bejar was still MIA, but he’s slated to tour with them in the Fall, so perhaps I’ll get the chance then. Anyway, this show was outside at Battery Park, the same place as the Belle and Sebastian show I went to last year, and like that show, this one was shadowed by the threat of rain. It got a little iffy at times, but luckily the rain held off and the show went on without any issues.

The good thing about this show was that it was free, the band thing is that means the crowd isn’t going to be as into it as they will be at a show they paid to get to, and for this band, and every band, that makes a difference. At The Polyphonic Spree earlier this week, so much of the joy of the show is being a part of the crowd, singing the lyrics back and getting really caught up in things. When I first saw The New Pornographers, opening for Belle and Sebastian in March 2006, I was a bit underwhelmed. They played a good show, but it didn’t have that transcendent energy the best shows do. When I saw them last August, it was a whole different story, that was an amazing show, with a lot more energy.

Here, they not only had the free show issue to deal with, they also had to deal with the fact that they’re playing material from an album very few people have heard. I got a review copy of the album, and have been playing it nonstop for the past couple of weeks, so I was all set to enjoy their new stuff. But, most people aren’t familiar with it, and as a result, they weren’t as into the new songs. I think their new album is as good as anything they’ve ever done and I was really eager to hear the songs off it, but I can understand people not connecting with unfamiliar material.

That’s not to say it was a bad show, they played great, and there were some really strong moments, it’s just that on the whole, it didn’t quite match up to last August’s Summerstage show. And, this whole perception could be due to where I was in the crowd, when I got to move up towards the end, things definitely improved and I was more into it. The final run of songs was fantastic.

But, let’s backtrack. I’d read that seeing the New Pornos without Neko Case wasn’t the real experience, and I was skeptical. They sounded fine to me. However, she is a great stage presence and has a phenomenal voice. I thought of Carl Newman as their frontman, and when she’s not there, he is. But, with her there, she pretty much controls things, overpowering his vocals when she comes in to sing. On the songs that spotlighted her, like “Go Places” and “Mass Romantic,” she owned the show, and if this was my first time seeing them, I couldn’t even imagine them playing without her.

The tracks off their new album are a bit more varied, both in terms of tempo and emotion. The band was supported by a four piece instrumental section that helped to flesh out the new material. While I love their first three albums, I’ll admit that the songs are very similar. It’s a great sound, so I don’t mind, but it’s exciting to hear the band do a song like “Go Places,” which is more subdued and emotionally involved. Neko’s performance on this song was phenomenal, and the emotion behind it was great, it was a shame that people seemed to zone it out because it was new material. “The Spirit of Giving” is another highlight off the album, which sounded great live. Though I’m still unclear what the repeated line on that final segment is, at first I thought it was “Corporate America mourns,” now I’m thinking “Love the American mall.” It’s unclear, but the song itself is so well put together, I don’t care. The song, like many New Pornos tracks, moves through a series of sections before resolving itself in a layered singalong chorus. That mysterious line is repeated, then another vocal is added on top. It’s a spectacular close to the album.

The one track I was really missing from the new album is “Unguided,” an epic six and a half minute track that soars to one of the most beautiful choruses they’ve done. It’s another really emotional song, hopefully it’ll get some play when they tour for the album. Other than that, most of the songs I wanted to hear were played. They’ve got such a deep back catalogue, it’s getting to the point where you’re not going to hear a lot of great songs. I would have liked to hear “Letter From an Occupant” with Neko singing, and “Falling Through Your Clothes” is always welcome, but this assortment was well chosen.

The old material sounded good still, though the crowd wasn’t really feeling things until “Mass Romantic” hit. That’s the one song that everyone knows, and there was a lot of excitement then. The lengthy stage banter slowed the show’s momentum, tightening things up a bit might have helped sustain the energy. It was funny when the drummer forgot which song they were going to play, but other lengthy digressions were just annoying.

The highlights of the show came at the end, with a triumphant “Bleeding Heart Show” to close out the main set and “Testament to Youth in Verse” during the encore. Both of these songs are anthemic, singalong masterpieces and I hope they remain in the setlist for as long as the band’s around. By the time of the encore, some of the less devoted people filtered out and the crowd’s energy raised a bit. The spattering of rain only added to the drama, though it would have been a lot nicer if it was about ten degrees warmer out there.

Ultimately, this was a nice preview of what the band will do on their next tour. It was great to get a chance to see them play for free, but I’d rather have paid some money and got to see them in an indoor venue with more devoted fans. Once people get to know the new album, they should get a lot more crowd involvement. But, any day where you get to hear “The Bleeding Heart Show” performed live is a good one.


B. said...

Great review. I'm seeing them this fall but I'm a bit aprehensive about the new songs. The setlist you posted from the August show made me salivate. Looks like my version of the perfect NP set list.

I have seen them perform "Letter from an Occupant" with Neko and it's every bit as good as you imagine.

Patrick said...

I'm hoping to get to the Webster Hall show in October, and see them with Dan Bejar as well. Though, I may be out in Vegas at that time to see Daft Punk, either way it's going to be good.