First up was Okkervil, a band that Jackie helped get me into and who has quickly become a fave. They gave a really engaging performance, shifting from sweet to anguished to angry and back. Some highlights included the raucous "Unless Its Kicks", the murderous "Westfall" and a gorgeous performance of "A Stone":
Sadly, they didn't play "John Allyn Smith Sails" -- a modest little folk tune about John Berryman's suicidal jump into the Mississippi that segues into a midnite-pub-rock version of Sloop John B. Somehow, whenever I hear this song I imagine the coffin setting sail into the darkness a la Jack Sparrow. Anyway, it rocks.
(Apropos of nothing, what's up with all the John Berryman references these days? There's another terrific song by the Hold Steady: "the devil and John Berryman, they took a walk together, they ended up on Washington Street talking to the river..." Makes me want to drag out my old Norton anthology of poetry.)
Okkervil played a very satisfying set, but the same couldn't quite be said of the New Pornographers, if only because Neko Case didn't sing last night (neither did Dan Bejar, which is a shame too). Now, Neko was actually on the tour and scheduled to perform, but she was taken ill that evening! Tragedy! Kathryn Calder more than ably filled in her vocal parts (and really, in any other band, she would be the star), but Neko is Neko and her shoes are hard to fill. See? Here's she is singing the hell out of an old gospel tune, John Saw That Number, at one of her solo concerts:
So fighting down bitter disappointment, we soldiered on together. The NPs actually played a great set. They started off with some of their denser songs that badly needed Neko's vocal grace notes to cut through the double-synth, triple-guitar assault, but they closed with some of their stronger, airier stuff. For those who aren't familiar with them: at their best the NPs play perfect Beatles-pop, but louder and faster and more abstracted (and with lyrics that don't often make much sense).
Happily, they played "Sing Me Spanish Techno" - a song about listening to catchy songs, that is itself, insanely catchy. Kathryn absolutely tore up "Mass Romantic" and they got the crowd to sing along on the "ooh oohs" and the "hey la" chorus to "The Bleeding Heart Show". The best song off their latest album (All The Old Showstoppers) is actually a sly, intertextual poke at Neko's gospel and country fixation:
Made up the whole thing, failed when he tried
To cash in on his cautious new fame
Always the numbers but never the name
By the end, the sugar rush had even erased the initial disappointment. Great show!