New Pornographers / Frames – Abbey Pub (Chicago, IL)
Nothing about this night inspired indifference. It began with agitated fans forced to wait — for as much as an hour, in midwinter temperatures and a stiff wind — in a line that stretched a block and a half from the club door; included a loose, inspired, and crowd-pleasing set from a little-heard opening band; and culminated in a no-holds-barred blowout by the headliners.
The New Pornographers — the name references Jimmy Swaggart, who declared that rock ‘n’ roll is the new pornography — is a six-piece ensemble of sort-of stars from the Vancouver indie-rock underground. The group’s one and only album to date, Mass Romantic, is an irreverent, animated rock record, packed with hooks and harmonies and happy indulgences in the hyperactive drum fills and cheap-sounding keys that fueled mid-’70s pop hits.
It was nearly 1 a.m. when Blaine Thurier banged out a keyboard intro, bassist John Collins and drummer Kurt Dahle fell in with a rambunctious beat, and Carl Newman hit a couple of power chords and began to sing “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism”. When Neko Case leaped in on the second verse, bracketing Newman’s vocals and shaking a tambourine, no one in the packed room was nodding off.
Touring has transformed this former goof-off side-project into a tight, energetic unit. They barely took a breath between songs in the early part of the set, nailed the staccato stops and starts of “To Wild Homes”, “Jackie” and “Mass Romantic”, and pulled off the swooping three-part harmonies of “Execution Day”.
Throughout the set, they supplemented songs from Mass Romantic with new material meant for its follow-up. The encore was spiked with a series of covers of dusty pop gems: Newman sang Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind”, Case bellowed Shocking Blue’s 1968 single “Send Me A Postcard Darling”, and the pair practically attacked the Sparks chestnut “Throw Her Away (And Get A New One)”. When Newman’s “Centre For Holy Wars” closed the night on a bobblehead beat, most of the fans from that long pre-show queue were flailing their arms, their faces shining with sweat.
Which is a good thing, because the New Pornographers needed a galvanizing performance just to live up to their warmup band.
The Frames’ most recent disc, For The Birds, was a terrific and terrifically overlooked album of tense, melancholy folk-pop augmented by muttering electronics, subtle strings, and occasional horns.
Good as it was, nothing about the record suggested they’d be a freewheeling live act. But the Dublin-based band was exactly that, partly as a concession to the challenge of opening to a packed house, and partly because they were happy to be wrapping up the tour in Chicago, where they worked with Steve Albini on For The Birds. Or maybe because, as frontman Glen Hansard put it, “We’ve been playing every night for the last two and a half weeks, and we’re completely fooked, and it’s brilliant!”
Though they may not have been brilliant — the band included two substitutes, Chicagoan Rob Bochnik on lead guitar and Margaret White of the Comas and Sparklehorse on electric violin — the Frames quickly won over a skeptical crowd.
That’s mostly a credit to singer and guitarist Hansard, a quick-witted ringleader who mugged in a homemade monster mask, instructed the sound engineer to make him “sound like Bon Jovi”, and sprinkled his songs with quotes from “Jane Says”, “Here Comes Your Man”, “Celebration”, and even “Mass Romantic”.
The set included just two songs from For The Birds, but both were highlights: A tuneful, circumspect take on “Lay Me Down”, and a dynamic version of “Santa Maria” that built from a hush to a feedback freakout, then faded back to its quiet coda.