Friday, July 28, 2017

Spoon and New Pornographers in Pittsburgh

I know I still owe a dispatch on the Johnny Mathis show last week, but I wanted to write about last night's Spoon and New Pornographers show at Stage AE while it was fresh in my head. 

"So who's headlining?"

"Is it a split bill?"

I heard that a couple times before the show started, and they were legitimate questions. Both Spoon and the New Pornographers could top a bill. Stage AE seemed like a much bigger venue for each band, compared to where they both played the last time they were here. (The NPs sold out Small's in 2015; Spoon was last here in 2014 at the Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead.) 

But the New Pornographers kicked things off. At 8:00 pm, they launched into "Moves," which goes back seven years to the Together album, which it also kicked off. No Neko Case this time around, but instead we were introduced to Simi Stone, who played violin, a bit of percussion and handled Case's vocal parts with ease. Longstanding drummer Kurt Dahle has moved on, but his successor Joe Seiders was aptly described by a friend as the band's secret weapon and I can't argue. He was in-the-pocket the whole night and sang harmonies on top of that.

Carl Newman (seen above) didn't have much to say between songs, which was fine because they only had 50 minutes to do their thing and they gave us a baker's dozen of their hookiest songs from all seven albums. At one point, it seemed like the set list had been written to incorporate all the songs that featured "uh-uh-oh-oh" vocals parts and the like, which was a fine recurring theme. It was great hearing all the layers of vocals in "Dancehall Domine" in person.

Among the surprises in the set, Newman introduced an "old prog rock song," which gave the impression a cover was on the way. Instead, they slammed into "The Jessica Numbers" from Twin Cinemas, which spends most of the time in 11/8 (I was able to count it last night) though it shifts towards the end of the verses. Again, kudos to Seiders for making it sound like he's been playing it for years and making sure that it rocked. Or swung, depending on how it's considered. Guitarist Todd Fancey did some shredding during this one as well.

Even though Dan Bejar was absent from the new Whiteout Conditions album and the show, Newman pulled off a powerful reading of the enigmatic one's "Testament to Youth in Verse," complete with its bell-like coda, which Stone and keyboardist/vocalist Katherine Calder made pure bliss. Speaking of Whiteout Conditions, the recent album contains some of Newman's strongest writing in years, blending major/minor chord hooks and sharp lyrics. Some of the best were in the set, including "Colosseums" and "High Ticket Attractions."

While they would've had me screaming like a Beatlemaniac in 1964 had "The Bleeding Heart Show" been on the list (click here if you want to see my true feelings about that song), they ended with "Mass Romantic," the title track of their debut album, with Calder singing the lead in the first half. Ecstasy had been reached. (Below: Stone, bassist John Collins, Calder)

After that, I could've gone home happy. Anything short of another set might seem anti-climatic to my head. But I was curious to hear Spoon. I haven't followed them anywhere near as religiously as I have with the NPs, and the last album I bought by them didn't quite do it for me. But I'm of the mind that a live performance can make all the difference, even in a big cavernous not-quite-arena as Stage AE. (Locals take note: I thought the show was going to be outside, which would have been cool with me, but it was inside.)

Spoon's set was more of a production. It began with Alex Fischel playing a long Fender Rhodes introduction in the dark. One almost expected flashes to go off, making the band magically appear next to him. Instead, the other four members of the band casually strolled onstage, and they launched into "Do I Have To Talk You Into It."

For most of the show, the band was back lit, with strobes going off and bright lights exploding at key points during some choruses. Britt Daniel even stalked to either end of the stage mid-song, though nowhere near as dramatically as Nick Cave did a month ago (not that it's fair to make a comparison). I don't want to deny Spoon any accolades for their success and longevity after 20 years, but the presentation seemed more in line with a band like Interpol - or another band that seems more serious.

The first half of the set leaned more on the band's riff songs, built on one or two note vamps, in the mid-tempo range. "I Turned My Camera On" sounded good but Jim Eno's beat was almost identical to "Inside Out" which preceded it, and took away some of the edge. But as things moved on, the energy and the mood picked up. When the bass was making my throat vibrate, the after-chorus blind flashes weren't as bad.  In one song during the encore, it seemed like they borrowed a trick from Mission of Burma, looping Daniel's voice and panning it between the speaker columns for a dizzying effect. While I would've preferred to hear more of Daniel's brittle guitar sound more often, the blend of Rhodes and keyboard-generated vibes brought some great nuance to the songs too.

By the time Spoon said its final goodbye, at almost exactly 11:00, they had been on the stage for 90 minutes, so there's no denying they know how to put on a strong, moving set. And now I do want to hear Hot Thoughts.

No comments: