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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Music: Live Review -- New Pornographers Get Busy on Webster Hall

Neko Case

New Pornographers turned out Webster Hall like it was some kind of newbie actress and they were the gang bang. In fact they were a gang bang with enough people on stage to play an Arcade Fire show and nearly as many instruments -- flute, violin, horns, two keyboards.

But the key ingredients last night were the incomparable and gorgeous Neko Case and inscrutable and hairy Dan Bejar, bookending dependable and trusty leader Carl Newman. Case has been known to sit out tours despite being a key presence on record. Newman's niece Kathryn Calder subs for Neko on vocals when she's not around and takes leads of her own as well as playing a mean keyboard. Last night showed Calder to have a clear, sweet voice and a winsome way with a black dress. But oh, when Neko sings! Why is this woman not a huge world-straddling star? She can sing anything, from the country-noir of her solo work to the revved up power pop and torchy ballads New Pornographers give her. She could be singing the Eddie Money back catalogue and be entrancing. Her voice is utterly distinct -- honeyed and powerful all at once.

Dan Bejar sightings at New Pornographers shows are extremely rare -- this for a guy who writes and sings three or four songs per album. Like Neko he has his own thriving solo world -- in his case as Destroyer. So Bejar was a special treat or as Newman called him "The elephant in the room." The crowd was thrilled and well they should have been. His songs are skewed and his vocals odd and reedy -- fantastically so. His song "Myriad Harbor" is one of the highlights of their new album Challengers, just as it was live. The funniest part of his whole Garbo like reluctance bit was that he would come on and off to do his songs -- he even had to be coaxed out by the band to do an encore. Out he'd come, looking rumpled and smelling (I'm imagining) of fresh bong, nail a killer song, and then backstage again to his sweet leaf and (still imagining here) lissome groupie horde.

Most of the new songs benefited from the aggressive live attack the band gave them, with drummer/secret weapon Kurt Dahle driving everything forward relentlessly. The only bummer was a muddy soundmix that rendered most of the extra instrumentation moot and Newman hard to hear while saddling Neko with occasional peals of feedback. This was combined with a lightshow that seemed to be controlled by someone who had no prior knowledge of the band and had been pulled away from a P.S. 21 production of Guys and Dolls. The Spotlight roamed warily before finding the intended soloist, sometimes alighting on a musician doing nothing in particular, the big lit up "New Pornographers" sign behind the band flashed like bad neon tubing and the stage was bathed in too much light or total darkness alternately for no good reason.

Still, after more than an hour and two encores it must be said that this was a rousing exciting show, highlighting all of the things that make this band great. Newman's aching voice plus killer songs and arrangements, Neko Case and all that she implies, the twisted offbeat charm of Bejar, plus a crack band.

Below is a clip of them earlier in the tour with Neko and Bejar doing "Myriad Harbor":

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