Sunday, May 8, 2011

The New Pornographers with Thao and Mirah and Kathryn Calder — Mt. Baker Theatre

Kathryn Calder and band. Photo by Dusty Somers.
Article first published as Concert Review: The New Pornographers with Thao and Mirah, and Kathryn Calder, Mt. Baker Theatre, Bellingham, WA, 5/6/11 on Blogcritics.

Though the popularity of supergroup The New Pornographers has likely eclipsed that of any one of its individual members, it’s clear there’s still plenty of discrete talent to be found. Friday night’s one-off show for The Pornos was also the kickoff for singer Kathryn Calder’s debut solo tour, where her charming indie pop opened the show.

Calder, who was introduced to the band largely as a live replacement for a sometimes-unavailable Neko Case, has become an integral member, with her sweetly sunny vocals contrasting nicely with Case’s distinctively feisty delivery.

As a solo artist, her approach is decidedly gentler. Along with her four-piece band, she performed songs from her debut album, Are You My Mother?, and the tone of the set was adorably awkward, from her self-deprecating demeanor (“I’m not Lady Gaga … I wish,” she said after explaining there would be no costume change between her set and the Pornos’) to her bassist’s grinning attempts at dead-air-filling humor.

Calder’s music isn’t going to take you by the throat and shake you into submission, but the unassuming nature of it doesn’t make it any less lovely. And while most of her songs feature subdued instrumentation, like the lilting piano backing of “Arrow,” she’s also comfortable kicking things up a notch, as seen in the jangly guitar and hand claps of “If You Only Knew.”

Following Calder were Thao and Mirah, also on their own separate tour promoting their recently released, self-titled album. Like Calder and Case, Thao and Mirah are a bit of a study in contrasting female presences, with Thao’s boot-stomping energy and slyly sardonic attitude mixing with the more matter-of-fact Mirah. Mirah has a soaring, incredibly versatile voice while Thao possesses rougher, slightly androgynous vocals buoyed by an anarchic sense of play.

Thao Nguyen. Photo by Dusty Somers.
Fresh off a border visit where an incredulous border patrol wanted to know about their “all-girl” band — Thao told him it was a cross between Joan Jett and Stevie Nicks, she said — the pair showed just how well their distinct styles coalesce. Whether in a back-and-forth number like “How Dare You,” the Mirah-centric “Hallelujah,” or a jazzed-up rendition of Thao’s “Feet Asleep,” complete with electric violin, Thao and Mirah demonstrated themselves to be a perfect musical match.

Thao and Mirah’s show has a bit of a DIY, homemade aesthetic, where hand claps and knee slaps can serve as percussion. In fact, the whole thing seems better suited to a sweaty club than to an expansive theater, but Friday saw them perform what might have been the most satisfying set of the night.

With a New Pornographers live show, you never know exactly what lineup you’ll get, as solo careers often beckon. With Friday’s Bellingham performance being a bit of an orphan, it wasn't too surprising to see the ranks thinned a bit, with neither Neko Case nor Dan Bejar in attendance. How much does that matter? Well, Carl Newman is certainly the heart and soul of the band, with his impeccable ear for pop melodies the major creative force behind most of the band’s fantastic songs. Still, as great as Calder is, Case’s forceful harmonies are certainly missed. A rendition of “Mass Romantic” or “The Bleeding Heart Show” just isn’t the same without her.

Aside from that, Friday’s show was a solid, if a little perfunctory run-through of plenty of hits. Title tracks from all five albums (expect perhaps “The Electric Version,” although I may be mistaken) were sprinkled throughout, without any album getting much more love than the others.

Carl Newman and John Collins of
The New Pornographers. Photo by Dusty Somers.
The New Pornographers are an interesting live act, because it’s essentially a power-pop band stuck in an indie-rock body. There’s a bit of a disconnect there; even though everyone’s a committed performer, no one really commands the stage. (I have a feeling this is not exactly true when Case is present, however; she’s a firebrand.)

It probably didn’t help matters that the audience was filled with pockets of behavior seemingly plucked from totally different kinds of events — bro-like high-fives (is this a Dave Matthews show?), a foam finger (what football game did you think you were attending?), and even some bumping and grinding (am I at a high school dance?).

Still, you’d be hard-pressed to produce a better example of a contemporary power-pop act than The New Pornographers. They’re at their best when operating with a full lineup, but any opportunity to see these guys shouldn’t be missed. Just leave the foam fingers at home.

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