About midway through the New Pornographers set, before busting out “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” singer Carl Newman told the crowd “We never used to want to do the corporate things,” in reference to the nature of the sponsored event, “but then we were like… well, why not?” It was this acknowledgement that made a lot of the pieces that had been bugging me that night fall into place.
I last saw The New Pornographers 4 years ago, at the Vancouver Folk Festival, and they blew me away. Their energy carried a hazy Vancouver evening from excellent to stellar, and their stage presence was on point.
Now, I’m no stranger to a good hometown show. They’re just better, I can’t deny that. The band set a high bar for themselves and for me, and so when I heard they were playing to celebrate the Danforth’s 100th Anniversary party, I was pretty excited for round 2.
And yet, by about 3 songs in, I was already disappointed. I mean that from the warmest of places – I had high hopes, but the energy wasn’t there. And so when I say the pieces fell into place after his speech, it was because it gave some context, a reason – they just didn’t really care. Six weeks out from an album release and two years away from their last one, The New Pornographers were in recovery mode – gearing up for a big tour in September and down a member (Simi Stone was conspicuously missing), they came to Toronto to put their time in, appease some fans, and fund their future endeavours.
It started with the mics. Perhaps not really their fault, but the quality of the vocals was just awful, with the words being nearly impossible to understand at any given time. The lights left something to be desired as well, intermittently changing but never trying anything too interesting – another indication that this show was just filler while they planned their much bigger, grander tour to come. The sound of the band was fine, oftentimes quite good, but the visual performance aspect of the evening was basically a non-starter. Most of the band was just there to play their instruments, not to put on a show.
I will say though, the banter was absolutely fantastic – probably a by-product of not really caring too much. They shouted out their superfans, complained about songs being too hard, and generally just rambled about whatever came to mind. At one point, singer Neko Case went on an extended tangent, with support from Newman, about how great breeding was and how they bred the whole band. It was weird, it was fun, it was chaotic – it was everything I wished the rest of the set had been.
I can’t fault the band on their choice to make money – god forbid that struggling canadian artists actually get paid for the incredible and painstaking work they do every day to make our country more amazing – and I genuinely felt that their more hardcore fans enjoyed the show, but it simply paled in comparison to my memory of their show years before. Maybe it was the hometown advantage, maybe it was the hazy Vancouver evening, or maybe it was the fact that they actually wanted to be there, but something made that night leagues better than the obligatory setlist they put on this weekend.