At several points throughout the New Pornographers’ show Tuesday night, lead singer Carl Newman commented, bemused, to keyboardist Kathryn Calder how surprised he was that they had never played in Cincinnati before. When Calder suggested that maybe they had played in Newport in the past, the crowd half booed and half cheered. Newman appeared confused.
The particular geography of the Cincinnati metro area can lead to splitting hairs, but the New Pornographers’ very sporadic history of appearances here made Tuesday night’s show even more essential than it would be anywhere else. Widely considered one of the golden bands of 00’s indie power pop, their show at Bogarts was one of most anticipated shows of the Spring, and they didn’t disappoint.
For their part, openers the Walkmen only added to the excitement. Their music was steady and deliberate, but their careful musicianship and lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s fervently passionate vocals ratcheted up the intensity. Altogether, they took a mixture that could have been summarized as “indie adult contemporary” and elevated it to a sum total that verged on “essential.”
As soon as they took the stage, the New Pornographers did what all great bands who have been around for many years do live – started their set with an ultra-catchy new single (“Moves”), and followed it up with a beloved older hit (“The Slow Descent into Alcoholism”). As a unit, they performed like a well-oiled machine, clearly in tune after more than a decade of performing together. Even when nagging sound problems with microphone and instrument sound levels threatened to derail their positive vibes, they simply shrugged, grinned, and took audience requests. This was a pretty impressive feat by a seven-piece rock band whose sound depends on intricate instrumentation and vocal harmonies. I’ve seen lesser musicians in similarly technically challenging situations crumble with frustration.
By the end of the show, the sound dramatically improved and the New Pornographers had succeeded in competently rocking the crowd. Their setlist read like a career-retrospective greatest hits collection, featuring everything from choice cuts off their most recent record, Together, to passionate versions of old favorites like “Twin Cinema,” “Mass Romantic,” and “Sing Me Spanish Techno.” As a seasoned band so clearly comfortable with each other and their songs, they never broke out of their own paradigm or made any shocking moves. But perhaps that’s the benefit which comes after years of proving yourself as a band: the New Pornographers didn’t come to Cincinnati to surprise anyone, they came to party.
-John Crowell @terriblesounds