Current Issue #488

Festival Review:
The New Pornographers at The Workshop

There are several things about The New Pornographers which are worth noting. One is that they’re easily the greatest harmony-drenched Canadian pop-rock supergroup on the planet, which sounds like jokey faint praise until you remember that Canada is filled with the things and many such bands, like Stars and Broken Social Scene, are also goddamn amazing. 

The second thing is that there are a lot of members and not all of them tour at any given time – indeed, even before he drifted out of the band a few years ago Dan Bejar (aka Destroyer, who also popped by here recently) barely toured at all despite writing and singing some of their best material. And that’s why it’s only a few songs in that the absence of a couple of key Pornographers is noticed: specifically bassist John Collins, replaced here by what appears to be a time travelling Keith Richards circa Exile on Main Street, and keyboardist Bline Thurler, replaced by no-one.

The reason their absence isn’t immediately noticed is because there are still seven people on stage and goddamn, they sound great. The all-singing frontline of the band features songwriter Carl Newman with keyboardist Kathryn Calder to his left, newest member violinist Simi Stone and the band’s true star, Neko Case taking lead vocals gratifyingly often, with guitarist Todd Fancey and drummer Joe Sieders on the backline. 

There’s precious little on stage banter at first as they plough through a set skewed heavily toward the last few albums, particularly the new The Morse Code of Brake Lights, opening with recent single Falling Down The Stairs Of Your Smile and pulling out highlights like Colossus of Rhodes, and One Kind of Solomon

But the extremely on-board crowd are primed for the old favourites, so barely have the first notes of The Laws Have Changed or Crash Years chimed out and the audience – largely people of, ahem, a certain age – are politely getting down. Which is more than the band does, for the most part: Stone has some sweet moves, and when she’s not at the keys Calder dances like an auntie at a wedding, but the rest of the band seem very focussed on getting from one end of each gloriously complex song to the other. And not for the first time I find myself asking how the hell these songs can be so catchy and so fiddly at the same time, and conclude that Newman et al are sorcerers.

However hard they’re working, by the time Case starts gently and then not so gently asking that people don’t take photos of her while she’s singing, because a) it’s distracting and b) she’s, ahem, “on the rag”, things have loosened up considerably, and the end of the set is nothing but gold: the euphoric The Bleeding Heart Show is a hands in the air secular hymn, followed by the devil-may-care swing of Mass Romantic, a pause before the inevitable encore, and then the massed harmonies of Brill Bruisers, the slow building Challengers and then off into the night on The Slow Decent Into Alcoholism

It’s also worth noting that the venue in which this show took place doesn’t really exist and absolutely should: the design, the art, the convenient bar and the excellent sound in what is more often the Dunstan Playhouse’s storage space meant that the Adelaide Festival had one of the city’s best live rooms, at least for a little bit. It’s definitely something they should consider keeping alive.

The New Pornographers performed at The Workshop at Adelaide Festival Centre on Sunday 1 March

Andrew P Street

Andrew P Street

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Andrew P Street is a freelance writer whose books include The Short And Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign Of Captain Abbott (2015) and The Long And Winding Way To The Top (2017).

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