The New Pornographers are commonly referred to as a supergroup, but often, when they perform live, they don't quite live up to that billing. Featured member Neko Case doesn't typically tour with the group, and Destroyer's Dan Bejar is even less likely to show. But both of the frequently absent singers made it out to the band's show this week at The Warfield in San Francisco, and I now can't even imagine how the group functions without them. The band sounds so much deeper and stronger when they're on stage, and as a result, Monday's show eclipsed my greatest expectations.
The band was joined by openers Fancey (otherwise known as Pornographers guitarist Todd Fancey) and Lavender Diamond. The latter band's album has really grown on me, but something's still lacking in their live show, at least in a venue as large as the Warfield. I've seen them twice there, and both times, the audience hasn't really bought into lead singer Becky Stark's Earth mother "thank you for saving the planet" vibe — and if that doesn't work in San Francisco, where does it? But all of that was forgotten when the New Pornographers took the stage underneath a sign that literally flashed their name in lights. For more about that, read more
I read some reviews of the latest New Pornographers album, Challengers, that suggested Case was no longer giving this side project her all. Whoever wrote those reviews clearly hadn't seen Case take the stage with the group, banging the heck out of a tambourine. Bejar saved his appearance for a bit later in the show, coming on stage seemingly at random with a beer in one hand and, on occasion, a guitar in the other.
The group tore through most of the songs from Challengers and threw in a broad sampling of older material as well. Clearly following the "when Neko is there, do the Neko songs" philosophy, they performed captivating versions of the songs that feature her vocals, most notably "Mass Romantic," "The Laws Have Changed" and show closer "Letter from an Occupant." And they did likewise with the Bejar songs "Myriad Harbor," "Testament to Youth in Verse" and "Jackie, Dressed in Cobras" — all songs that just wouldn't work without two of the group's star members. (Case was also this close to getting the band to perform a Journey cover, but to no avail.)
Considering that Case and Bejar don't perform with the band that often, the group's cohesiveness was impressive. Nobody missed a beat or a cue, and when all the members sang together, it formed a wall of sound that the Warfield could barely contain. Their chemistry led to some interesting banter with the crowd, as well — though the crowd could hardly stop cheering and clapping long enough to let them speak.
I had seen the group once before, at Lollapalooza 2006, with both Bejar and Case gone — and they delivered one of my favorite performances of the festival. They're great under any circumstance, but with Case and Bejar on stage, they're nothing short of stellar.