New Pornographers at Massey Hall

Photo Credit: Credit: Jag Gundu / Massey Hall

Technically, I’ve seen all of the current members of the New Pornographers on the Massey Hall stage…just not at the same time. Remarkably, this was the first time in the 20-year history of the Canadian indie rock “super group” that they had played the venerated Massey Hall stage. Yet often band members Neko Case and Dan Bejar don’t join the group on tour, instead contributing to the studio albums. Considering I’ve seen both of these acts at Massey in the last few years, that sort of counts…right?

The New Pornos ended a very long string of shows – first accompanying Spoon (link to Spoon review) earlier in 2017, then on their own tour, joined by opener Born Ruffians for a number of Canadian dates. It was an excellent way to end their tour – a joyful journey through each of the band’s 7 albums and a celebration of their sound. This was easily the best show of theirs I’ve ever seen (this being my 4th show in 10 years), and probably made more impressive by how effortlessly they filled Massey Hall with their sound.

Opening with their rock-heavy “The Jessica Numbers,” the band invited the audience to buckle-up for a rock-heavy, synthy ride. It took a few songs for the group to find their groove – whether it was nerves from playing arguably Toronto’s most important stage, camera-shyness from the ever-present filming for Live at Massey Hall, or simply end-of-tour fatigue. But find their groove they did by the time “Moves,” the opener from their 2010 album Together, encouraged everyone to find their sound. With Neko Case missing, touring member Simi Stone filled the vocal gap admirably, also adding her stirring violin skills to the mix.

The band moved through about half of this year’s Whiteout Conditions album, the first of theirs to not feature Dan Bejar (who usually writes and leads 3-5 songs per album), as he’s currently taking a break from his work with the group. This meant the show lacked some of the more out-there (and Destroyer-like, which is Dan Bejar’s main project) sound from songs like “Born with a Sound” and “Myriad Harbour.” This isn’t to say that’s an issue, but as much as I like Whiteout Conditions, only a couple of the songs they performed (“Play Money,” a great showpiece for Simi Stone’s vocals and single “High Ticket Attractions”) really grabbed me like the tracks they chose from their other 6 albums.

However, this lead to the success of this show and this setlist. I usually see the New Pornographers as having two different styles of song – the more rock-heavy and the more melodic. They knew their venue and chose great tracks from their repertoire to give eccentric drummer Joe Seiders and long-time guitarist Todd Fancey plenty of opportunity to shine. Mid-show songs “All the Old Showstoppers” and “Sing Me Spanish Techno” got the audience joining in, and it didn’t take long for the dancing to begin. When the handful of the more melodic songs would be peppered in, there were plenty of opportunities to highlight Kathryn Calder’s strong voice, including “Adventures in Solitude” and “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk.”

While I was enjoying the layered sound of the group, I couldn’t help but notice the way lead singer and primary songwriter A. C. Newman let himself meld in with his highly capable bandmates. Newman announced around the release of Brill Bruisers in 2014 that he would begin focusing solely on the New Pornographers as opposed to his side projects (everyone in the band has side projects, hence its original “super group” moniker), so it was nice to see his role as frontman let others shine. That’s not to say he wasn’t in top form – his voice, as always, was a unique but strong sound that always shone on its own and melded beautifully into harmonies with Kathryn and Simi, especially on some of the band’s older songs, like “Use It” and “Testament to Youth in Verse.”

The band ended the show with one of their earliest hits, “Mass Romantic,” from their debut album of the same name in 2000. It was at this point, nearly 20 songs in, that I wondered why my voice was going as I realized I basically knew all the words to every single one of their songs. With the audience enraptured, the band took a brief break before returning for a three-song encore. Another track from Mass Romantic opened the encore: “The Slow Descent into Alcoholism,” another great showcase for voices that also allowed drummer Joe Seiders another chance to add his deeper register to the vocal mix.

The title track from Brill Bruisers followed, with the last song being “The Bleeding Heart Show” from 2005’s Twin Cinema (one of my favourite of their albums). I believe I’ve seen them perform this song at every show, but I’ve always thought it’s a perfect last song, which I hadn’t seen. This gave everyone a chance to shine and allowed the audience to sing along with gusto. Kathryn Calder both emulated Neko Case’s album vocals and added her own style, and A.C. Newman could still keep on singing despite his earlier banter about how tour-weary they all had been.

It was a great opportunity for the band to end their tour and for a nearly-full audience of fans at Massey Hall to witness one of their greatest shows. Perhaps one day, Neko Case and Dan Bejar will join them on this stage together – but for now this experience will be more than enough.

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