New Pornographers | 04.19.08

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adly, Neko Case broke her ankle two nights before the St. Louis show and did not appear. I was disappointed, but kept my hopes high.

 

Photo: Todd Owyoung 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

w/ Okkervil River

The Pageant, St. Louis

An opening band is a delicate thing. They have the responsibility of setting expectations for the entire show. If the opening band is boring or unimpressive, the crowd gets grumpy and antsy. The perfect opener is one who satisfies the crowd and gets them excited for an even greater show to come. Okkervil River was adifferent sort of opening band all together. They were the opener that makes the headliner appear dull. Their hour-long opening set at the Pageant made New Pornographers look like boring statues; at least they were statues that sounded great.

Okkervil River is one of my favorite bands. I still keep Stage Names (their most recent release and my top album of 2007) on repeat in my car. Their music just hits me in a way that few bands have since Neutral Milk Hotel. Their folk-rock sound manages to beemotional, literate, heavy, delicate and wild all at once. I was anxious to see them live for the first time, fearing that their character would be lost in concert. This was thankfully not the case. Their opening set retained the emotional weight of their genius lyrics and could have kept me entertained all night.  Front man Will Sheff lets himself go wild on stage. His voice ranged from growls to yelps as he jumped around, feeding off other members of the band. There was always something to watch as they performed. My attention was split between the wild drummer, the fun maracas and the mind-blowing guitar playing from Wrens member Charles Bissell. 

Their set also had an incredible flow, with seamless transitions between songs like "President's Dead" and "Black." The intensity of the show built as it went on. There was a cool-down period featuring gentler songs like "Girl in Port" and "Stone." This was immediately followed by heavy hitters like "For Real" and "Unless it Kicks." My favorite song was "John Allyn Smith Sails," which ended with a goose bump inducing sing-along to "Sloop John B." As I stood in the pit, watching their energy explode on stage, I realized that I had not seen a band this great since the Arcade Fire. They have that same quality to their performance. I felt the emotions behind Sheff's lyrics and immediately wanted to go listen to all their albums to re-experience that awesome show. 

I had seen the New Pornographers three times before their April 19 trip to the Pageant. The first time I saw them was at Mississippi Nights after the release of Twin Cinema.This was one of my favorite concerts ever. They were touring with both Neko Case and Dan Bejar (members of the Canadian super group who are not always with them). I was in the front of the crowd and loved their energy and musicianship.The second two times I saw them, they were without Case or Bejar and something was missing. I didn't feel the energy or fun that I did that first night. This most recent tour was supposed to feature Case, so I was excited to compare my experiences. Sadly, Case broke her ankle two nights before the St. Louis show and did not appear.  I was disappointed, but kept my hopes high. 

The band sounded phenomenal. They really know how to make catchy pop songs that can keep toes tapping. Songs like "The Laws Have Changed" and "All the Old Showstoppers" rang out beautifully with vocal melodies and jangly guitars.  However, their stage presence was a little boring. Nobody in the band really moved much during the show or even looked at each other. They seemed to be in a hurry, cramming as many songs as they could into their set. They only paused between songs once, giving front man AC Newman the chance to make an awkward comment about how he watches "American Idol" a lot (something the hipster crowd couldn't relate to much). A little banter between songs could have done wonders for the atmosphere and the enthusiastic crowd.

Their set wasn't entirely boring. Though Case was absent, their backup female singer Kathryn Calder more than filled the gap. Her vocals were beautiful and fit well with the strong punch of some of their material. She made songs like "Mass Romantic" and "Adventures in Solitude" real delights. The highlight of the set, though, was "Myriad Harbor." For this Bejar-written song, Sheff returned to the stage to take lead vocals. The New Pornographers suddenly transformed into a different band. Sheff seemed to give everyone else energy they had been missing. Now, members were moving around, playing off of each other's excitement, and genuinely having a good time. I think this is what Case adds to the group's live dynamic. Without her, they don't seem to feed off of each other or have as much fun.

The New Pornographers ended their show with a nice encore that featured a cover of the classic ELO hit "Don't Bring Me Down."  I wish Okkervil River had a chance foran encore. They would have torn the place down. AC Newman made a comment about the pleasure of touring with the "god-like genius" of Okkervil River. I think he knew that his band was outshined by their "supporting" tour partners. | Pete Wissinger   

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