Whenever the New Pornographers announce that they're going on the road, the question “IS NEKO CASE ON THE TOUR?” is asked -- urgently, by everyone, and always in all caps.
First Avenue’s audience Tuesday night was thrilled to see Case on stage with her long-term side project. When her voice first emerged from the ensemble during the band’s second tune, “The Laws Have Changed,” and nearly every time thereafter, she inspired shrieks and squeals from the crowd.
Clad in T-shirts, jeans, plaid, and sequins, the Canadian power-pop collective offered a balance of new and old material, playing seven songs from their new album, Whiteout Conditions, and four from 2014’s Brill Bruisers, in addition to highlights from each album spanning all the way back to their debut, Mass Romantic.
Case’s dynamism aside, the band has clearly shifted its approach to vocals on the new album. Songwriter Carl Newman remains the vocal spine, but rather than trading off lead and backup singer duties, they've adopted a new, more egalitarian approach, pivoting between vocalists across verses and choruses, expanding their signature close harmonies, and singing more often in unison. At times, six of the eight band members sang simultaneously, including Case, Newman, singer/keyboardist Kathryn Calder, and new touring vocalist Simi Sernaker, who also plays violin and percussion. (Notably absent from the spring tour is vocalist Dan Bejar, on hiatus due to work with his band Destroyer.)
Though the band didn't waste much time between songs, Case and Newman’s banter was, per usual, on point. After Case had a false start on “Colosseums,” Newman joked, “The whole class would love to know what you were daydreaming about, Neko.” And after Case’s particularly striking vocals in the latter half of “Champions of Red Wine” inspired a wave of cheers, Newman remarked, “Hey, we’re really into this cheering thing during the songs! Is it cool if I do that bullshit move where I stop singing and you sing instead?” Singing along even before the formal invite, the crowd was nonetheless spurred on by the encouragement, though they had to wait for that audience participation moment until much later in the set, during the irresistibly peppy “Sing Me Spanish Techno.”
That particular brand of joviality makes a New Pornographers show special, and their camaraderie lends buoyancy, even to lyrics with a heavier present-day political relevance. When Case intones, “Sing all hail/ What’ll be revealed today/ When we peer into the great unknown/ From the line to the throne” from 2003’s “The Laws Have Changed,” it feels good to bop your head to the beat rather than shaking it in disgust. And the catchy tune and fast-moving synthesizer lines on the new album’s single, “High Ticket Attractions,” made pondering self-preservation less troubling when Newman pleasantly warns us “this thing could go two ways” and to “pack a small suitcase.”
Closing out the encore in the only appropriate way was “The Bleeding Heart Show,” a crowd favorite from 2005’s Twin Cinema. A sing-along to end all sing-alongs that renders the disorienting dissolution of a relationship, the song crescendos into keyboardist Blaine Thurier’s dreamy melodica line and Case’s repeated final lyric, which reminded us just how late it had gotten.
Overheard in the crowd: People are still lamenting the death of cargo shorts. Pockets are getting smaller, and it’s making some folks really upset.
The crowd: Mostly respectful of the band’s request that audience refrain from photography and video, with the exception of a few swaying dudes intent on capturing video of “Spanish Techno” for their iCloud.
Critic's bias: My relationship with Dan Bejar/Destroyer’s oeuvre is complicated. I'll admit I wasn't disappointed to learn he wasn't on this album or tour.
Random notebook dump: Philadelphia-based rocker Waxahatchee – aka Katie Crutchfield and bassist accompanist Katherine Simonetti – opened the show to a packed room of early arrivers, confidently delivering sparse arrangements of melancholy songs from her three albums and previewing a couple new wistful tunes from her forthcoming release, Out in the Storm. Due out in July, it’s sure to be a fitting soundtrack for the dog days of summer.
High Ticket Attractions
The Laws Have Changed
Champions of Red Wine
Adventures in Solitude
All the Old Showstoppers
This Is the World of the Theater
Testament to Youth in Verse
Sing Me Spanish Techno
Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk
We’ve Been Here Before
The Bleeding Heart Show