When considering attendance at a New Pornographers show, the discerning connoisseur is encouraged to tilt up one's nose and sniff, "Will Neko Case be there?" Because the redhead is a bit of an icon, commanding her own fan base when she tours as Neko Case & Her Boyfriends (now known simply as "Neko Case"), carrying her dark, alt-country tales around the country. In the case of the April 16 show at Toad's Place, there were murmurs that she wouldn't be in attendance, supposedly absent from the last show in D.C. a few days before.
But when the lights went down and the Canada's pop band of choice, ever punctual, took the stage at 10 p.m., here came Neko, hobbling up with one leg in a cast: maimed, but present. There was a collective sigh from the crowd.
Now this isn't to say that The New Pornographers are nothing minus Neko. In fact, frontman A.C. Newman put out a pretty terrific solo album himself. Which is kind of the appeal of the band -- a bunch of talented folks who came together somewhere in Vancouver in 1997 and cranked out "Mass Romantic," a surprise pop hit amongst the indie set that introduced the world to Newman's superb songwriting, Neko's cathedral-filling voice and the multi-limbed musical talents of Dan Behar, Kathryn Calder and the rest. But having Neko perched on her stool, front and off-center -- it's just reassuring.
No telling what happened to her, but there was some worry that the band was in low ebb as the show began, as Newman had some problems with his vocals and the band played some peppy, but reserved songs from the latest album, "Challengers."
Once they opened up with the barreling, harmonic "Use It," though, the crowd awoke right along with the band. The New Pornographers have a bouncy consistency to their pop sound, but once they take that step over the line into rock, it's a reminder from the collective unconscious of that moment when Buddy Holly first plugged in at some Texas prom. Like everybody suddenly realizes, band and audience, that there's been a whole reservoir of energy right under our feet, and why, would you look at your feet? They're moving!
The show alternated between these high-bounce-ball moments and the complex, lower-ebb pop that forms the core of the sound -- it's all mandolins and glockenspiels and melodions. And Newman's polite howl against Neko's minor religion of a voice.
Speaking of politeness, that's the other thing about The New Pornographers: they don't act all pop-starred -- they come out on time, they play the ones people know, they understand that a crowd that neither sways nor swoons is a fatal problem and they recognize that the stage-clearing immediately before the encore is a gesture, a vestigial tail of some time when maybe the audiences really did debate whether to call for the band's return.
So the band ceremoniously exited the stage and came right back. No waiting. Of course, that could've had to do with Neko, who sat patiently on her stool while the other six members left the darkened stage, just long enough for her to say something like "I'll just wait here." And then they all summarily returned, took up their instruments, and blasted into nothing less than a cover of ELO's "Don't Take Me Down." These are the kind of people you can count on to raise spirits, both ours and Buddy Holly's ghost. They're also the kind of people who might change a tire for you, even if Neko can only sit back and watch.
The opener, Okkervil River, shouldn't be excluded from praise either, though. Their fans were in the crowd. And while some of the lyrics seem distinctly gritty and Springsteenian against the indie rock that buffered it, the band is a fine pairing for the Pornographers, a fine reminder of something great and past.
Correction: In the original version of this story, "Don't Take Me Down" was incorrectly attributed to Wilson Phillips.