Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The New Pornographers/Okkervil River, 4-21, Madison, WI

About four years ago I remember thinking that if I were in a band, that I'd want to sound like the New Pornographers. Their recorded output at that time consisted only of Mass Romantic and Electric Version, two hook-laden, upbeat, and the kind of diverse but straightforward pop albums that make you wonder why they aren't the most popular band in the country. How could anyone not think this music is perfect?

Over the past few years my tastes have ebbed and flowed to and from poppy stuff, noisy stuff, drone stuff, sweet stuff, and bands that fell into categories defined in different proportion by all four of the preceding categories. For the most part what's become evident is that bands as perfect as the New Pornographers have tended to fall out of favor with me. The vocals are too polished, the hooks too catchy, the band too confident, the image way too damn slick. The NP's subsequent two albums, Twin Cinema and Challengers offer a slight departure (much moreso on the quieter, subtler Challengers) that I couldn't quite hop on board with as easily as with the first two. Twin Cinema and I had some good times, ranging from when I bought that album in Tulsa after we got back from our roadtrip out west and before school started that year, through when I saw the band play a dynamite set at the now-defunct Mississippi Nights in St. Louis (I always loved the club but it wasn't until I moved to a town with so many venues of questionable quality that I realized that Mississippi Nights was an amazing place to see a show) and pretty much up until walking in to the Brown Auditorium in Louisville where they were on stage warming up for Belle & Sebastian and basically not even caring that they were opening.

Since then I'll occasionally dip back to the first two albums and I tend to enjoy them, but I don't love them nearly as much as I did those last two years of college. A few months ago when I heard they were playing in Madison with Okkervil River, I was mostly limp on the idea of going despite my friends' excitement. I mean, New Pornographers are alright, and I like Okkervil River, but paying $22 (+ $6.75 from Ticketmaster if I couldn't find the time to go to the box office) for a show I'm not crazy enthusiastic about in a venue that I almost completely detest wasn't something that I was planning on doing.

Flash forward a few months and I hear a song in a bar (I don't remember which) and suddenly going to the show felt like a good idea. I'd pay the $22, but fuck Ticketmaster. If I couldn't get tickets at the box office I would not go. Turns out someone at work had an extra ticket they were unloading for $15, so that was awesome and I didn't have any doubts about the value of seeing a band I really like and I band I really used to love for that price, even if the show was at the fantastically hateworthy Orpheum Theater.

Day of show, and the temperature is 75 and the sky is partly sunny. Fuckin' a, I'm going to walk to the theater! It's only a mile and a half, but during the winter months that's an absolutely gargantuan distance to have to walk. When the sun comes out it's fucking gorgeous.

So, let's break this up into 3 sections (there will only be one score total, though):

The Orpheum Theater
I never reviewed the Decemberists show I went to at the Orpheum (holy shit, I just realized that show was almost exactly a year ago and that day was also one of the first truly beautiful days of the spring season as well), but rest assured that I hated it. Part of why I hated it was because I drank too much, part was because I didn't think the band was particularly 'on', but most of why it was so awful can be attributed to the Orpheum Theater.

This place is one of those big old-timely venues with ornate wall carvings and a swanky lobby and other beautiful accents, but unfortunately the obscenely awkward positioning of the balcony juxtaposed against the main floor has forced the stage to be positioned about 8 feet in the air, which you can imagine has to be a terrible headache if you have to either crane your head to look up from the floor or down from the balcony. I mean, who designed this fucking place? Our seats were near the back of the floor section and our view was actually pretty decent. However having seats in a venue is automatically negative points, so it was minor consolation (and though I'd actually have liked to have sat for the New Pornographers' set, everyone in front of me stood up and I'm not tall enough to be able to see over their heads when I'm sitting, so I had to stand also). Oh yeah, and it was ungodly hot in there. Big, hot, musty, awkward theater does not a good show help. At least the sound quality was above average, if not downright good.

Okkervil River
I've seen Okkervil River three times now, and of the three shows this one certainly takes the cake as the one I'd like to remember if for some reason I was forced to forget any two OR shows that I've been to (abbreviating Okkervil River as OR makes their name look dangerously similar to O.A.R.; I just shuddered). Will Sheff's narratives resonated perfectly through the venue, and his stage presence was enormous. He's got a fantastic, booming voice, and he commands it perfectly in tune with the band's songs. Their loud songs were good. Their quiet songs were good. Their cover of "Sloop John B" was fantastic (sidenote: I've read in several places that this song is the lone clunker in the context of its Pet Sounds surroundings, but I've always quite enjoyed it). I would have been perfectly satisfied if my $15 had gone to see only Okkervil River that night, but holy shit the headliner hadn't even played yet! In my experience even when the opener tears it up, the headliner usually puts them back in their place. This was going to be a great show. No regrets any more!

The New Pornographers
I forgot to mention this earlier, but a few days ago Neko Case injured her foot and had to drop off the tour for a few shows, this Madison stop included. That was a serious bummer because a huge part of why I decided to get a ticket hinged on her presence. When she sings, I get fucking chills. Everyone gets fucking chills. Kathryn Calder has a beautiful voice, but she's missing the "Neko Case Factor", which needless to say is unique to Neko Case.

Anyway, after a reasonable intermission, the lights dim and the crowd cheers. Minus one point for the crowd, since when a venue is that full for a band that is that popular, I expect a roar. Cheer is laundry detergent. Roar is what good crowds (and lions) do. I guess the crowd was also anticipating a mediocre performance in the absence of Neko Case and Dan Bejar, but come on, give the band the fucking benefit of the doubt!

In the crowd's defense, the first few songs performed were total snoozers. I don't know if the band were mirroring the crowd's intensity level, but it wasn't until "The Laws Have Changed" that things started to pick up a bit. It's a melodic upbeat rocker, but when it's the first enthusiastically performed song of the night and it's the fifth or sixth in the set, there's not much hope for the rest of the night. Or is there? Following "Laws" with "Twin Cinema" was making me reconsider my own lack of enthusiasm. I was beginning to feel it, and I was having fun. Turns out the rest of the show was pretty limp. I enjoyed my old favorites "Mass Romantic", "Electric Version", "Sing me Spanish Techno"and the two encore songs, a genuinely spirited cover of ELO's "Don't let me Down" (don't let me dowwnnn, KROS!!) and the classic "The Slow Descent into Alcoholism", but during the rest of the show I was pretty bored overall. I certainly wasn't the only one either. Most of the crowd didn't really seem to give a shit about a band they paid at least $22 (and in some cases around $30) to see, which is unfortunate because an excellent crowd can turn a mediocre show into a really good show.

Overall it was pretty clear that Okkervil River stole the show. In the section of songs I enjoyed I neglected the one that Will Sheff stood in for, commandeering Dan Bejar's vocal section ("Myriad Harbour"?). Several friends agreed, and I heard various comments in the lobby about how great Okkervil River were and how merely "alright" or "pretty good" the New Pornographers were.

Bears - 3.5.
There was a tall guy standing right in front of me. I mean, seriously, come on! In the whole row directly in front of us the one tall guy was immediately in my field of vision. Also, the venue tends to suck a lot of life out of the shows it hosts. And it was fucking stuffy in there. Also, the New Pornographers weren't great.

Anti-bears - 3.5.
Okkervil River saved this score. Will Sheff is awesome on stage. Also the cover songs the bands performed were fantastic. The weather and the walk to and from the Orpheum were very nice, as well. The New Pornographers weren't terrible.


J said...

what's going on garz?! just some thoughts...

1)O.A.R. is coming to the cain's. if you want to come down here i'll go with you. i was close to seeing them with sean's dad once.

2)for the longest time i always thought the band's name was "Overkill River," but then i finally looked at the name a little more closely. sheesh, get a clue.

3)personally i liked this post a lot but it probably didn't have sean doubled over in hysterical laughter. you should probably take it down.

charz said...

Three points I'd like to make:

A. Sean blows

B. Okkervill River is good. I woulda liked to go to this show. That sucks that NPs were subpar. I consider the show I saw at Mississippi Nights among my favorite ever.

C. As opposed to NPs at Miss nights being among the best shows, O.A.R. at the Pageant is by far the absolute WORST show I'd ever been to. So boring. Uggh the worst was when they came out for an encore. But an anti-bear for the fact that I grabbed a stray chair during the encore, which made it almost bearable.