The New Pornographers released their first LP in 1999, and ringleader AC Newman supposedly started practices in 1996. Somehow, they’ve been a mainstay of indie rock and pop for 20 years without a significant mainstream breakthrough (or even a minor one like, say, Spoon had this year). All the while, each of the band’s main three vocalists have enjoyed solo success (Newman, Neko Case and Dan Bejar’s Destroyer) that at times eclipsed the group.
That’s all to say fans going to see The New Pornographers on its current Brill Bruisers tour aren’t new (Ithaca in 2008 here). So as the band and its fans age together, the show has adjusted accordingly. And the shift goes beyond ‘the audience is a little older, the dancing a little more reserved.’
Skipping the obvious “Champions of Red Wine” analogy, there are significant positives to having this kind of built-in rapport with an audience. While a less established act might rely heavily on the latest material, The New Pornographers’ set was less than a third Brill Bruisers. Newman spread things around across the band’s six LPs, with only Electric Version (arguably the best LP!) getting shafted with only two tracks. No matter what era of The New Pornographers was your gateway to fandom, you got a significant fix.
And for a band that relies so heavily on intricate arrangements both vocally and instrumentally, 20 years of reps would make Malcolm Gladwell giddy. The evidence came early, as “Myriad Harbor” allowed Bejar’s frenetic syncopation to soar over harmonies the band probably does well in their sleep. Middway through the set, they unleashed “Crash Years” and even kept a trio of harmonizing whistlers on pitch and in sync. With old favorites like “The Laws Have Changed” or “Jackie Dress in Cobras” throughout the night, pace noticeably picked up when compared to the album version—but there was no sign of things breaking at the seams. In fact, after a set with a few instances of such speed, you get the sense The New Pornographers could push tempo to unlistenable limits without losing a bit of tightness.
With a captivated and well-informed crowd, The New Pornographers can also charm with things that might annoy for bands still trying to establish an identity. For instance, while an older gentleman nearby could be overheard speaking for some swath of the audience—”Why’s that guy keep leaving?”—Bejar was a show by himself for many. Whether or not he actually (and consciously) lives up to his anointed online personality—in short, an aloof, wine swilling, unkept artistic genius—is secondary; Bejar absolutely delivered a performance to support it.
Appearing on stage for roughly a fifth of the monster 26-song set (only when he’s got lead vocals duties, duh), Bejar was unpredictable drunk uncle to Newman’s reliable rock dad. He wouldn’t look directly into the audience, he didn’t dance. Bejar simply took his mic off the stand and delivered his polyrhythmic, sultry baritone on-call. When his time was done (even if the song was not), he’d put the mic back on the stand and turn his back on the audience until the song was done. After the final note, he’d turn around only for a brief bow before bouncing off-stage. He skipped encores all together. It was mind-boggling, it was riveting, it was brilliant. In short, it was everything you’d want from a Bejar experience, right down to a pair of white pants and at least four undone buttons at the top of his collared shirt.
For a set that lasted nearly two hours, there was decidedly little banter. After all, no one needed it. Having a crowd sing back choruses to even the potentially obscure and forgotten (“The Body Says No” off Mass Romantic, casual fans?) sends a clear message. Playing not one, but two encores does too. Catching The New Pornographers at this point is to participate in music’s version of a committed long-term relationship. Each side seems to know what the other wants intimately, and the on display ability to keep each other happy is awe-inspiring.