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.

By David Malitz |  April 16, 2008; 5:40 PM ET Live Last Night
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I would agree with you that Neko is not essential for the New Pornos to put on a good show, as they did on Monday night. Kathryn Calder is an excellent vocalist, and fills in fine. But, as you mention with your Gilbert comparison above, when Neko is there and on there is no comparison. This came through on Tuesday night in the fuller harmonies, and on the songs that featured Neko as the primary vocalist (Go Places, Challengers, Mass Romantic, Letter from an Occupant), and at the conclusion of the set closer, Bleeding Heart Show. Her voice is just incredible.

Posted by: Capitol Hill | April 17, 2008 10:44 AM

Neko Case, whatever. So which Wizard is Kurt Dahle? Very few bands since the Who that I listen to for the drummer, New Pornographers is one of them

Posted by: Self Congratulatory Hipster | April 17, 2008 11:41 AM

Kurt Dahle is probably Brendan Haywood. They both make funny faces (Kurt when he twirls his drumsticks, Brendan after he makes a dunk) and they both make very solid, undervalued contributions to their respective squads. Sound right?

Posted by: David | April 17, 2008 12:47 PM

I saw the first night's show and liked it just fine - Katherine Caldwell, the synth player, did great filling in female backing (and sometimes front) vocals.

I liked Okkervill River but yes, asking people to clap is a little pandery and desperate.

Posted by: SDM | April 17, 2008 2:10 PM

DeShawn Stevenson with his bushy beard would also be a good counterpart for Newman on looks although D.S. (not the laid back type) stirs things up a bit more than Carl does.

Posted by: Pete | April 17, 2008 4:44 PM

It turns out Neko broke her ankle in that fall...which explains why she was in the chair.

Posted by: Sean | April 18, 2008 1:48 PM

I disagree about Neko. She makes the band a headliner, not an opening act. The playlist differs, featuring better NP songs. I came Monday for her and was seriously disappointed.

Posted by: Sting | April 24, 2008 1:00 PM

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