The venue is a labyrinthine theatre. Plum red walls extend skyward to a distant ceiling from which a gigantic mirror ball swings. From amongst the balconies, balustrades, stairwells, galleries and terraces, eager faces crane forward in expectation. A tangible sense of occasion hangs in the air.
With a crisp matter-of-factness, Carl Newman introduces his band, stating that they are in the midst of playing four countries in five days.
“Think of the most powerful drug you can and then cross it with narcolepsy.”
I’ve been heard to mention that the best thing about The New Pornographers is the unparalleled power pop platform that it gives Dan Bejar. It’s unfair and brazenly untrue, but the hint of honesty rests with the fact that Bejar’s contributions rank disproportionately highly in my ranking of the band’s material. Since this touring incarnation of The New Pornographers is shorn of Bejar and Neko Case, perhaps the two most celebrated individuals, this show made for an interesting insight into the group’s dynamic.
Despite the fact that the show then neglected all of Graceland, Stacked Crooked and The Jessica Numbers, among my favourite non-Bejar offerings, it was a fantastic set. In what proved to be a whirlwind tour of seven years of new pornography, five things became apparent, three positive, one somewhat negative, one downright negative.
The downright negative:
The sound was pretty poor. Newman’s vocals were mostly illegible and the melodic keyboard intricacy that sets The New Pornographers apart was often lost. As someone familiar with the group’s material, I was able to fill in the blanks with ease. The others with me were less successful though still positive. It seems that this disease is not endemic to South Africa.
The somewhat negative:
Dan Bejar is the cherry on the top. His presence in the band appears to be more that of shape shifting collaborator than bedrock member, but his absence removed much of eclectic visceral dimension that I’ve always thought the band has in spades. Not hearing Jackie and Myriad Harbour was particularly disappointing.
Kathryn Calder’s voice is even more angelic in person. Simply stunning. It is high praise indeed to say that Neko Case was not really missed.
Challengers is an exceptional album, the quality of which stood out strongly in its complexity against the older material.
In the space of four albums The New Pornographers have amassed a stunning catalogue of material. It is only a very special group that could carry the above-mentioned absences with such ease.