I’ve always wondered why Carl Newman, braniac front man of the New Pornographers decides to adopt initials whenever he’s releasing material on his own. Could it be that he’s paving the way for secret literary aspirations? Maybe he just spent a lot of time watching the Lakers in the mid- to late-1980s. In any case, this low-key performance on the darkened fringe of Park Slope served to teach this reviewer a lesson in the importance of never judging a solo artist by his original band. Also, never—and I mean never—load up on a pint of whiskey before leaving for a show you’re extremely eager to see.
Here goes nothing.
15 Nov 2008: The Bell House New York, NY
Tonight at the Bell House I’m accompanied by an obscenely talented rabble of yet-to-be recognized literary and/or songwriting prodigies as well as a couple of record label interns whom I’m compelled to describe as two of the most congenial people I’ve been privileged to meet in this too, too brusque metropolis. After a few confused minutes in front of the will call desk we’ve located a perfectly suitable perch on the slightly raised area in front of the back wall bar.
Up first is the Oranges Band, a group that greater than half my company either directly derides or just doesn’t bother paying any attention to. One of my friends, we’ll call him Justin, says over the din that he likes them a lot. I reply with something along the lines of “fair enough” and go on to be genuinely warmed by the appearance of the lead singer’s father—apparently the band’s de facto manager when they play live in New York City—who nobly hawks their latest album beneath the red-orange glow of hot stage lights.
Unfortunately, by the time the Oranges have begun carting off amps and hi-hat stands and other assorted instrumental accoutrements, I’m beginning to feel the Jack Daniels going to work on my appallingly sensitive system. Before I know it, Newman’s taken the stage, guitar in hand, and is already sweating through his first song—presumably something off his forthcoming (January 20th, 2009, kids) album, Get Guilty. Certainly ashamed at having missed my cue, I somehow manage to navigate the obligatory sedated throng and end up somewhere near the front of the stage.
Newman’s band is clearly thrilled to be there, and—being that enthusiasm is the most contagious (natural) human emotion—I end up feeling much the same way. The new material is received in typically heedless Saturday night fashion, but the songs sound tuneful enough, ping-ponging off the walls with utmost whimsicality for what could be hours or seconds or maybe just the time it takes to finish half of one revolting glass of some obscure pale ale. Suitably, everyone comes alive for basically anything off of 2004’s The Slow Wonder, and friends can be seen happily bobbing their heads and tapping their toes to (whaddaya know?) live favorites like “Miracle Drug” and “On the Table”.
As for A.C. himself, he proves to be as regular a guy as anyone who’s worked closely with veritable indie gods like Dan Bejar and Neko Case could possibly be. Maybe it’s the inborn British Columbian charisma going to work, but this audience of bespectacled new liberals seems to be lapping up every morsel of stage banter, jovially participating in what may or may not be (I’m really not sure) an incredibly witty and endearing back-and-forth. At some point I go to exchange my disgusting beverage for something slightly more palatable—an event that inevitably turns the bartender against me for the rest of my life.
Time and tunes pass in an ecstasy of power chords and irresistible melody. Before the encore I manage to position myself in such a way as to ask or struggle to ask this Vancouver songwriting genius a question about his influences. The question doesn’t get answered until after the encore (which I naturally miss).
The question? I think it might’ve been as stupid as, “What do you have to say about the Zombies and Arthur Lee?” The answer was a highly sympathetic, “They’re irreplaceable.” God bless Canada. The second I received this information I immediately realized how out of order I might have been throughout the entire night and slunk off and out of the venue in a haze of wounded or misguided journalistic impulse.
Talk about getting guilty. Anyhow, let’s just jump to the night’s primary lesson. Let it be stated that I’ve had the privilege of seeing the New Pornographers twice over the course of my short life and I know them to be one of the most engaging and powerful organisms one’s ever likely to experience in a live context for well under the cost of a 4-CD Zombies box set. That said, this Bell House performance was not remotely close to being like a New Pornographers show. Instead, get ready to nix the angular Thin Lizzy-esque riffing madness, quit staring at that gorgeous tambourinist, and sober up for a songwriter who might actually be trying to communicate more directly than he ever has before.