Whenever a band does an album anniversary tour, romantics may become starry-eyed and nostalgic, superimposing the dramatic highs and lows of their own youth onto the album that played in the background for rites and rituals of their young adulthood. Cynics, though, may see these album tours as lazy and opportunistic, preying upon those above romantic types. Who even listens to the whole album again after the first listen?
But when the band in question is The New Pornographers and the album anniversary tour is for not one but two of their masterworks, the mass romantics win over the cynics.
On Wednesday, December 1 and Thursday, December 2, The New Pornographers performed to a sea of mostly elder millennials and Gen Xers at 9:30 Club. The band and audience had all the exuberance of a prom night celebration — even if it looked more like a high school reunion for their two sold-out shows.
Wednesday night was the 21st-anniversary tour for their classic “Mass Romantic” (2000); Thursday evening featured the sweet 16th birthday of their junior release “Twin Cinema” (2005). That’s right: Even the debut album would be old enough to grab a beer at this show (and their junior effort would be getting a driver’s permit and entering junior year of high school).
Dublin singer-songwriter Aoife Nessa Frances opened the show both nights with a dreamy, hazy set of half-dozen songs that evoked the best of 1960s country-folk’s longing and loneliness.
Once they took the stage, the band launched right into the confectionary title track with its Beach Boys melodies and unforgettable bridge. During the next two hours, the band played the power pop perfection that is their debut, an album that has no deadweight or sleeper songs. It was a joy to hear rarely (never?) performed b-sides like “The Mary Martin Show,” to relish the anthemic build-up of “Execution Day,” to bop along to the catchy “Body Says No,” and to share the communal experience in a room where everyone is not only having the same experience — but reflecting back on when they first enjoyed those same songs 21 years before.
Frontman A.C. Newman was centrally located on guitars and vocals and the incomparable Neko Case flanked his right. Next to Case was guest vocalist Nora O’Connell who contributed vocals to several of the band’s albums. To Newman’s left on keyboards, vocals and melodica was Kathryn Calder, Newman’s niece who joined the line-up before the recording of “Twins Cinema.” In the back, Todd Fancey played lead guitar, shredding through songs like “Mystery Hours.” Joe Seiders also performed on the drums, with John Collins on bass.
Before the second song, “The Fake News Headlines,” Newman and Case joked that Dan Bejar was backstage pacing like a caged panther — and he would indeed slink on stage for his songs and stalk back off again.
While previously announced that Bejar would be hitting the road with the band, it was still a welcome (not quite) surprise, as he didn’t appear on the band’s last two records. He announced in 2019 he had left the band, but if we have learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that we are all continually reevaluating our lives and the choices we made before 2020. And what a welcome back for the singer-songwriter who provided the band with their most trippy songs. The audience screamed out their love for Bejar throughout the night.
The New Pornographers has always been a supergroup consisting of musical stars with their own careers, belonging to other bands such as Destroyer, Limblifter, etc. Neko Case may be the star who has burned the brightest as a solo artist (at least in the States). While some founding and long-term members have left the group, the roster of associated artists has continued to grow over the years, creating a nebulous band defined by a welcoming carousel of exceptional musicians.
Adding to the feeling of a happy reunion, Case and Newman exchanged playful banter like a long-married couple finishing each other’s thoughts. The audience cheered for Case’s offstage partner and stage manager, Jeff Galegher, who helped with a recurring tech issue. The audience knew the words to the anniversary classics and danced along during a second set, heavy on hits from the band’s twenty-plus-year dynasty as Canadian rock royalty.
The second set included the sun-soaked poetry of “Myriad Harbour,” the title tracks from their albums “Brill Bruisers” (2014) and “Whiteout Conditions” (2017), and two favorites from their eighth and most recent release “In the Morse Code of Brake Lights: You’ll Need Backseat Driver” and “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile.” The stirring Christmas EP track “The Spirit of Giving” fittingly closed the show.
But maybe it was the lyrics to their sophomore album song “Testament to Youth in Verse” that best captured the joy of seeing The New Pornographers back together for this double-anniversary album tour: “Should you go looking for a testament to youth in verse, variations on the age-old curse / You blame the stations when they play you like a fool and like a fool you get played with.”
9:30 Club’s disco ball descended for “Champions of Red Wine,” a love song about having a deep and complicated history with an old flame, and the audience was at a high school reunion all over again: Awkwardly swaying in place, that fierce mix of looking backward at youth while looking across the room at people you once knew and loved, who have aged and matured, gone grey or grown pouchy, and lived their full, beautiful, messy lives — just like you.
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