It was our nation’s birthday and our neighbor to the north got us a great gift: a free outdoor concert by Vancouver’s own The New Pornographers. Probably the biggest event thrown this summer by the River-to-River Festival (even though it was free, you had to reserve tickets online – and they went in only a couple of hours…), the group rocked way-downtown Manhattan’s Battery Park, just a stone’s throw away from the imposing Staten Island Ferry Terminal. The setting was a little harrowing, with very cloudy skies, barricades around much of the park, no beer for sale, and a crowd of not just hipsters, but also old folks and kids. But The New Pornographers might have been the perfect pick for all that – upbeat but indie, interesting but clear.
Hitting The Big Apple in the run-up to the release next month of their latest record, Challengers, The New Pornographers split their set between those numbers and ones off of their last record, 2005’s Twin Cinema, with a few sprinkled in from 2003’s Electric Version and 2000’s Mass Romantic. The New Pornographers opened up with Challengers’ “All The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth”, a driving, poppy piece that might not be their most complex by any stretch, but one that served well as a new song to open with. But it was the following Twin Cinema “Use It” romp that really sparked the crowd, and it sent a tone for the performance: the Challengers songs were good, but the Twin Cinema ones were better. Maybe it was the crowd’s general unfamiliarity with Challengers; maybe it was that record’s song selection (quality tracks like “Myriad Harbor” and “Unguided” were passed over, in favor of weaker ones like “The Spirit of Giving”); maybe it was the Twin Cinema song choice (stronger tracks like “Jackie, Dressed In Cobras” were played, instead of poorer ones like “Falling Through Your Clothes”). But whatever it was, while the Challengers songs were appreciated, none of them could get the crowd going like the Twin Cinema three-bill at the end: “Twin Cinema”, “Sing Me Spanish Techno”, and “The Bleeding Heart Show”.
Singer/guitarist Carl Newman also had a tendency to announce what was coming up next, giving the audience a chance to get psyched up for the older ones, like “Use It” and the following bright synth-pop “The Laws Have Changed” (Electric Version). He might have been doing that for the sake of all the non-hipsters in the crowd, of which there were many. River-to-River is far more than just a festival for indie rock, but also services New York’s higher-art and higher-income communities, and lots of those folks were there, from late thirties/early forties professionals and their young kids, to empty nesters in their late fifties/early sixties (and older…). But The New Pornographers were a great choice for such a diverse crowd, such as with Challengers’ “All The Old Showstoppers”, whose almost honky-tonk tones felt like a throwback in all the right ways, but was also something even the littlest of kids could enjoy.
With numbers like “Showstoppers”, the anthemistic “Jackie, Dressed In Cobras”, Mass Romantic’s saloon-stomping title track, and Electric Version’s stadium-filling “From Blown Speakers”, there were songs to appeal to the whole family. There was some slippage in-between, however, with the slower, moving-but-a-touch-boring “Challengers” and the same record’s too-twee “The Spirit of Giving”. But then the Challengers tracks hit their high point with the rhythmic and sweet album opener, “My Rights Versus Yours”. Of course, “Rights” was made even better by drummer Karl Dahle’s utter confusion beforehand, as to what they were going to play, the wind having blown away his set-list…
The weather was an issue during the entire concert, though its bark was always worse than its bite. Throughout the set, the overcast skies threatened and threatened to rain, but when the precipitation finally came near the end, it was weak enough not to lose many spectators before the band returned for an encore. Or maybe it was just that The New Pornographers went into the encore break with the best part of their set, starting with Challengers’ “Mutiny, I Promise You”, whose dance-ability seemed to particularly jazz up the wee ones. But it was the rock-ribbed sixties-pop of “Twin Cinema” that was easily, if unsurprisingly, the crowd favorite for the night, along with the similar, but more wry, “Sing Me Spanish Techno” (which is neither Spanish, nor techno). And the show’s strongest sad song, “The Bleeding Heart Show”, finished it up.
The New Pornographers and the audience returned for the encore with vim & vigor, despite the rain, but some of that was sucked out with the pretty, but too moody for the environment, “These Are The Fables” (Twin Cinema). It was only when the band reached farther back in time that they really got the audience a-rockin’ a-gain, with the hipster crowd-pleasers “Testament To Youth In Verse” (Electric Version) and “The Slow Decent Into Alcoholism” (Mass Romantic) – even though the youth-friendly nature of the event meant that there was no alcohol on offer.
However, the dry setting (in wine & spirits, if not in skies) could be seen as yet another obstacle to a good time that The New Pornographers easily overcame. Grey clouds right from the get-go? Atlantic winds whipping away set-lists? A free show that required tickets – which you couldn’t buy? A crowd ranging in age from eight to eighty? Giant barriers surrounding Battery Park, leaving you wedged between them and the sea, with only a few entrances and exits? A location about as far downtown as you could get? Almost half the set devoted to an album that’s not out yet? With The New Pornographers, that’s no problem at all.