27 Jun 2001: The Great American Music Hall San Francisco, California
These things just don’t happen at indie music shows, especially when that indie music is the perfect pop of the New Pornographers. Yet, as sure as the awestruck grin on keyboardist Blaine Thurier’s face, there they were: a pair of exposed groupie breasts.
Most people didn’t see them, since the main audience for this game of it’s-getting-hot-in-here-don’t-mind-if-I-do was Thurier, and by his ecstatic reaction and momentarily jumbled keyboarding you could tell that, despite the band’s promiscuous name, these displays of affection weren’t a nightly occurence. Which is too bad, because when a band can so readily sweep you off your feet with an infectiously catchy, short and sweet set of songs, the least you could do in return is show a little skin.
Alas, it’s the unsuspecting life for this perky little band-next-door. Being made up of various Vancouver scenesters as well as the superb songwriter-vocalist Neko Case has earned the New Pornographers the dubious distinction of “supergroup”. Yet they’re all still anonymous enough that you don’t get the pretension that is usually attached to anything “super”. In fact, you don’t get any pretension at all—just four guys and a girl making music and joking with each other about “boobies” (said groupie “boobies”) and “pooping” (the excuse given for why Thurier was late getting back to the stage for the final encore). The packed Great American Music Hall may as well have been a house party or high school dance for all they cared. And they cared.
As part of pop traditionalists Zumpano, lead guitarist-singer Carl Newman favors more staid arrangements. Maybe it’s the name, but in the New Pornographers he’s much looser, letting his most charming Phil Spector- and Beatle-isms get wrapped around Kurt Dahle’s mod con drumming, Thurier’s head-tilting keyboards and Case’s powerfully rubber voice. And let’s not forget the spot-on rhythm and guitar of John Collins and Dan Bejar, respectively.
The result is spectacularly tight numbers like set opener “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism”, whose bouncy guitar and feelgood/feelbad vibe is “Sesame Street” for grownups. Newman also proved himself the perfect harmonizer for Case and vice-versa on earnestly unserious favorites like “Fake Headlines” and “The Body Says No”.
Newman rarely kept his eyes open when singing, while right behind him Dahle was drumming with such animation that you expected bubbles to come out of his mouth and his chair to give way below him. Meanwhile, everyone else thumped nonchalantly to the deceptively intricate rhythms they were all playing.
When it came time for Case’s first take at lead singing, the absolutely perfect pop song “Mass Romantic”, the band sarcastically opened by yelling “Let’s rock!” Sarcasm or no, it rocked. When somebody yelled for the equally lush and powerful “Letter from an Occupant”, another Case leader, the quick response was “Yeah, we’re such pros at set pace that we’re gonna play ‘Mass Romantic’ and ‘Letter from an Occupant’ back to back.” Saucy!
It wasn’t the first time that night they’d gotten smart with the audience. Early into the set as they were talking briefly between songs, somebody yelled “Just play!” from the back of the room. Newman shot back “You just earned yourself 15 seconds of awkward silence, mister!” And then they gave him 15 seconds of awkward silence!
When Case did get around to “Letter from an Occupant” late in the set, it was greeted with a synchronized but totally unplanned bob from the audience that accompanied the “woo ooh ooh” in the chorus as the wall of sound layered out every bit as meticulously as the recorded version. Better, in fact.
The band later started talking and the same guy once again yelled “Just play!” This time Case shouted “Aw shut up you stupid indie slob!” At least one person in the audience fell in love with Case at that very moment.
Despite the insults, the New Pornographers were neither indifferent nor hostile toward the audience; more than that they were simply saying what so many other people would have liked to say. Just as their perfect Nick Lowe cover choice that closed the evening, the New Pornographers were simply being “Cruel to be Kind”.
There was no attempt at high-brow indie arrogance or low-brow indie ignorance; they were just being themselves, which in these days of us-against-them, major-vs.-minor, posturing even when anti-posturing music, having a band of regular joes—and a band for which being regular joes is not their schtick—was as refreshing as their songs were energetic. If this is the New Pornography, then count me in as a New Pervert.