Live Last Night: The New Pornographers
Neko Case = Gilbert Arenas.
Just stick with me for a minute, OK?
After an illness rendered rock's most fawned-over backup singer a last-second no-show for the New Pornographers' Monday night engagement at the 9:30 club, all anyone could talk about yesterday was whether or not she'd take the stage for the second of the Canadian supergroup's sold-out shows. Will she or won't she, will she or won't she? And really, every New Pornographers show is marked by this same phenomenon. It reminded me of the situation with Agent Zero a few weeks back when he was nearing his return from an almost-season-long injury. Every game was met with this anticipation that overshadowed everything else about the team, nevermind the fact that they were doing just fine without him, thankyouverymuch. Like your Washington Wizards, the NPs have proven they can get along just fine without their most famous redhead, even if the results are a bit less exciting.
Neko walked on stage with the rest of the band last night, to the delight of the crowd. She spent the first three songs complaining about her levels and the monitors then told us how she hurt her ankle before the show and ended up sitting down for the second half of the show. Diva! But I'm not trying to knock Neko. I just think she's not as integral to the band's success as most fans would claim she is - sort of like, well, Gilbert. But there's no denying that the band is at its best when Case is at least somewhat involved, again, like Mr. Hibachi. The best song in the New Pornographers' catalogue is "The Bleeding Heart Show," and it was the clear highlight of last night's show. There's soaring vocals, and then there's Case's bellowing on the second half of that song. Simply fantastic stuff. But part of the reason it's so effective is the slow-burn first half of the song that leads up to the galloping finale. And the song was written, of course, by Carl Newman. For most of the set Case was just ... there. She played her tambourine, provided nice backing vocals and sang lead on a few tunes. If you wanted to be mean you could call here a glorified version of Patti Scialfa. But I'll stick with Gilbert.
So if we want to play this analogy out, Dan Bejar would be Caron Butler. He's the one all the "cool" kids like the best but he's proven that he just can't be counted on to consistently show up. So that leaves Carl Newman as the underappreciated, overlooked Antawn Jamison of the group. Maybe he's not flashy or sexy (unless you dig bushy red beards) but he's there every night and always delivers. He's the steadying force in the group and doesn't mind if other folks get the spotlight. Last night he was his usual laidback self, letting the songs speak for themselves, although he did have his fair share of good one-liners ("God always comes to see us when we play in the same town as the Pope."). The energy in the club was almost non-existent for the first six songs but things became considerably livelier from that point on.
Openers Okkervil River played an ornate brand of indie-folk-rock that was ... just not my thing. There was so much drama in every aspect of the performance, from the vocals to the crescendos in nearly every song to frontman Will Sheff flinging his hair out of his face. It was almost as if he didn't trust his songs and felt the need the need to embellish them with these extras. But he was really doing more harm than good. And ordering the audience to clap along is never a good move, and it's especially questionable when you are the opening act. But that's exactly what Sheff did for the final song of the set and even told us, "I don't see enough hands" when not too many people complied.
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