The New Pornographers + Waxahatchee
4 May 2017: White Oak Music Hall Houston, TX
Canadian indie rock heroes the New Pornographers played Houston on Thursday May 4th. This sentence in and of itself would not be remarkable in many of North America’s major cities. But the band has avoided Texas’ largest city for years. The last time The New Pornographers performed in Houston was in 2008 when they did a co-headlining show with Spoon. It was a great bill, and a strong show, but even that was a bit truncated since Spoon was the closer and The New Pornos’ set was limited to about an hour.
So it was a treat to finally have the band come to town and play a full set, even if longtime adjunct member Dan Bejar was not on the tour (or the new album Whiteout Conditions for that matter). The opener for the show was Waxahatchee, an artist I wasn’t familiar with beyond having heard the name. Singer-guitarist Katie Crutchfield was joined by a bassist and the duo played a lovely 35-minute set. Crutchfield has a great voice that live was delicate and pure, regardless of the subject matter of her lyrics. But even with a relatively brief opening slot, her music was beginning to suffer from a sense of repetitiveness. There’s only so much gentle electric guitar strumming accompanied by slow, deliberately picked bass notes that one can take before it all starts to blur together. The lack of musical variety definitely didn’t help my personal attention span for Waxahatchee, although the audience was polite and respectful throughout.
The New Pornographers took the stage at White Oak Music Hall to a huge roar from the crowd and proceeded to play 90 minutes’ worth of power pop gems. White Oak Music Hall is a new venue in Houston, and the main room has been open for less than a year, but the club has already gained a reputation for excellence. The owners had previously managed the city’s venerable Fitzgerald’s through a wildly successful revival in the early ‘10s, and they obviously learned a lot from that experience. WOMH is a wonderful space, with rich, wood-paneled walls and ceiling, and the sound quality is top-notch.
The band opened with “Play Money”, the opening track on Whiteout Conditions. As on the album, the song featured wacky synth riffs backing up a great lead vocal performance from Neko Case. After that it was time for “The Laws Have Changed”, a classic that dates back to their second album Electric Version and features one of the group’s best duets, between Case and A.C. Newman. The front line of members almost all got involved on vocals on nearly every song. Kathryn Calder, touring member (and violinist) Simi Stone, Newman, and Case all were in great voice and enthusiastic throughout the show.
In this current set up, the only member up front to not sing is keyboardist Blaine Thurier, who stands at far stage right, next to Case. Watching Thurier, one gets the sense that he does a lot more work with the band during the recording process than live. Even on the more intricate, synth-heavy songs from Whiteout Conditions, the workload was either handled by pre-programmed synths or by Calder at far stage left. Most of Thurier’s playing during the show is limited to him using a single hand to play simple chords or keyboard riffs. Although seeing him pound away relentlessly on single notes during the verses on “Dancehall Domine” and then switch to the same single notes but two octaves higher during the chorus was a pretty entertaining visual. Occasionally Thurier did get to use his microphone, but it wasn’t for singing. Instead he pulled out a harmonica for “Sing Me Spanish Techno” and triumphantly lifted a melodica high in the sky before using it for the iconic solo during show closer “The Bleeding Heart Show.”
With the front line being so engaging, it can be easy to ignore The New Pornographers’ three background members. But new drummer Joe Seiders ably handled all of ace ex-drummer Kurt Dahle’s parts while nailing all of his own rhythms from Whiteout Conditions. Meanwhile, the cloud of grey hair on bassist John Collins head and the trucker hat and near-mullet of guitarist Todd Fancey is always an amusing juxtaposition with the rest of the band. The front line is full of pretty people, and while Fancey and Collins are excellent musicians who contribute fully to the group, onstage they look like a couple of guys from a bar band in Saskatoon who happened to stumble into this gig.
The set itself was nicely balanced. The band hit most of the highlights from Whiteout Conditions without trying to play every single song. “Colosseums”, “Whiteout Conditions”, “Avalanche Alley”, and “High Ticket Attractions” all showed up. “This is the World of the Theatre” was placed conspicuously in front of its spiritual predecessor, “Backstairs.” Putting the two “showbiz behind the scenes” songs together worked nicely, and “Backstairs” even featured a simple but effective bass solo from Collins, his only moment in the spotlight all night.
Other highlights included a pair of Case features, “Champions of Red Wine” and “Sweet Talk Sweet Talk.” The latter had Case and Stone using drumsticks to replicate the distinctive rhythm pattern that recurs through the song and getting the crowd to clap along with them. The only Bejar song to make an appearance was “A Testament to Youth in Verse”, with Newman sang ably, at least in the front section. I had forgotten what makes that song distinctive enough that the band plays it even without Bejar, but it’s the back half. All of the vocalists (including Fancey and Seiders) get involved in the layered round, singing “The bells ring no no no / no no no / no no” again and again as most of the instruments go silent.
This was the start of the end of the show, which included “Mass Romantic” as the main set closer, the only song from their first album to make an appearance. The encore found Thurier playing the bass so Collins could use an acoustic guitar for the quiet but complex “Challengers.” The encore also had the joyful “Brill Bruisers”, and they finished out with what is possibly the band’s best song, “The Bleeding Heart Show.” It was great to have The New Pornographers finally come back to Houston and play in such a good venue. Hopefully, they’ll return more often after this.
The New Pornographers
The New Pornographers
The New Pornographers
The New Pornographers