The lights go down. The crowd surges forward. Hands begin to clap as voices rise in anticipation. It’s the moment just before the show begins and it’s arguably the finest moment of any rock show. It’s the moment when you lose track of your company, your beverage, whatever conversation you were engaged in and turn toward the stage. The New Pornographers, clearly aware of the importance of such moments, saunter easily to their places (all save one–more on him later) as the power chorded prog-tastic preamble to Boston’s “Long Time” bellows over the house system. It’s a perfect match, as if you’re witnessing the long-awaited return of a victorious battle squad, fresh off their latest, faraway conquest. But Vancouver isn’t that far away, really. And the Pornos are just a rock band, albeit one well stocked with accomplished and talented players.
They are touring in support of Together, their excellent new LP, but choose to open with an older number, “Sing Me Spanish Techno”, off 2005’s brilliant Twin Cinema. The crowd roars in instant approval and begins to bounce and shout along in unison. Carl Newman and the incomparable Neko Case share vocals on this first offering, as they will throughout most of the evening, handing the spotlight back and forth with a comfortable familiarity. Case in particular seems completely at ease in front of a crowd. Her unkempt hair, simple attire and humble presence are a refreshing change of pace from the typically overcooked female stage performer. Her voice, however, is as crushing and remarkable as the soul itself. It is to her credit that since this show I have methodically tracked down the entirety of her back catalogue. She is a treasure.
Many of the night’s highlights belong to Case. The best moments, though, the real showstoppers, come courtesy of the band’s resident Wild Card, the great Dan Bejar. Bejar is a character, pure and simple. He is the only member of the group who enters and exits the stage at will, playing when he wants, drinking what he wants (as much as he wants)–singing, not singing. He makes his first appearance during “Up in the Dark”, the second number, strolling onstage to sporadic recognition and polite applause. Grabbing an acoustic guitar, he begins lightly strumming it with his back to the audience, his hair a black swirling creature atop his head, his clothes the type you’d find at a Mexicali Goodwill.
He, along with Newman and Case, make up arguably the most disparate collection of songwriters to ever convene in a single group. For sheer talent and proficiency, they’re a difficult trio to outclass. The next number was one of Bejar’s best, the extraordinary “Myriad Harbour”, and as he sings it became obvious, I assume, to anyone wondering, what this strange looking bum-like person is doing onstage with Neko Case. Bejar’s voice is one-of-a-kind, strong and reedy, and his songs are oddly brilliant. He sneers his words to great effect, hurling them at the audience over beautiful, stuttering acoustic phrases and unexpected, unpredictable harmonics. His songs are my favorite Porno songs, and the ante is definitely upped in his presence.
The band flies through an impressive set; classics like “The Laws Have Changed” and “Jackie Dressed in Cobras” play wonderfully alongside the new material–“Moves” and “Crash Years” in particular seem destined for permanent setlist status. Special mention needs to be made of the group’s rhythm section—Todd Fancey (rhythm guitar), Kurt Dahle (drums) and John Collins (bass) should form their own band. I would pay to see those three guys all by themselves. The Pornos close their 90-minute set with “The Bleeding Heart Show”, which, I guess, is not only my wife’s favorite New Pornographers song, but everyone else’s as well.
The response is deafening–by the time they get to the big booming “HEY-YA” sing-along outro, the floorboards at the old Rialto Theatre are taking a solid beating. Bejar, predictably, is nowhere to be found. One assumes there are several Coronas backstage awaiting his return. He makes it back out for the encore though, reemerging to sing “Testament to Youth in Verse” for us, a gesture for which I will be forever grateful. The night in whole is truly a wonderful experience. There’s something endlessly fascinating about watching a collection of individuals melt into one entity, especially when the resulting effort produces something so simple and honest.