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Friday, April 11th, 2008

Challengers


Photo by Frank Yang

The New Pornographers and Okkervil River. Not a bill I’d have ever thought to put together – they don’t share a label, management, booking agency or even, really, a particular musical style. But they do both have mounds of positive press clippings and large swathes of real estate in my CD collection so despite my general preference to not be out at shows three nights in a row, it was off the The Phoenix on Wednesday night for the opening night of their joint North American tour.

Now this being Canada and with the Pornographers as headliners, I assumed that the Okkervil boys would be in the position of having to win over a sold-out house of power pop fans, twice the size of any room they’ve played in Toronto. In other words, perhaps in a bit tough. So imagine my surprise when the band came out on stage and the room went nuts. Okay, probably not the whole room but from my spot a few rows back of the stage, it certainly sounded like everyone around me was seeing the band they came to see and quite pleased about it. Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong.

When I saw Okkervil play not even a month ago at SXSW, they were in the throes of some lineup changes that couldn’t help but change the sound. Keyboardist and vocalist Jonathan Meiburg, needing to concentrate on Shearwater commitments, had already been replaced and this show marked just the fourth show for new guitarist Charles Bissell from The Wrens as replacement for new father Brian Cassidy. Meiburg’s vocals are definitely missed though the rest of the band does their best to make it up, but I was really surprised by Bissell’s contributions. Rather than simply cover Cassidy’s parts, Bissell brings to the table his distinctive guitarwork, complete with loops, delays and other electronic touches that you wouldn’t have associated with Okkervil in the past. By letting Bissell be Bissell and diverting the river of golden dreams through the Meadowlands, the song arrangements have taken on an interesting new dimension that I wholeheartedly approve of.

But even with the lineup changes, Okkervil remained very much the same band that demolished Lee’s Palace last Fall. Will Sheff bounded about the stage, quite evidently happy to be back on stage and on the road, and was in fine voice as they tore through a set that was almost exclusively from The Stage Names and Black Sheep Boy, though the inclusion of “It Ends With A Fall”, circa Down The River Of Golden Dreams, was a pleasant surprise. Though their allotted hour was pretty long for an opening slot, it still felt too short and left me anxious to see them come back yet again, but with the top billing.

And so it was left to the headliners to prove they weren’t going to be blown away by their tourmates, either on this night or any of the subsequent thirteen shows they had scheduled. I personally didn’t know if they had it in them, considering that the Pornographer have never been the most dynamic live band and when they were here last October, they seemed especially disengaged and/or indifferent. If that attitude carried over to this show, then it was going to be a long tour for the Vancouver collective. Luckily for everyone both on the stage and the audience, that wasn’t the case. Now there was no way that the Pornographers were going to match Okkervil for pure stage presence, but that’s not their game. Instead, they did the best anyone could ask and delivered their intricately crafted and insidiously hooky pop gems with gusto and elan.

Energized and cracking jokes between themselves and the crowd, it was like they’d done a 180-turn from that October show. Everything that was missing that night was present on this one, except Dan Bejar who was absent from this tour though Neko Case was again along for the ride. I don’t know what it was – maybe it was a good idea leaving the giant marquee at home or maybe it was just easier to get the game face on at the very start of the tour, but they put on a pretty cracking show for the sold-out house, which in itself was remarkable considering this was the band’s third Toronto show (including the Indie Awards during CMW) in less than six months in support of Challengers. I didn’t stick around for the encore – I was mildly amazed I’d lasted that long and didn’t want to push my luck – but it was glad to go home with the understanding that a live bill doesn’t necessarily have to make sense, it just has to be good.

Apparently Pittsburgh is really stoked for this tour – The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette talks to Okkervil River while The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review interviews head Pornographer Carl Newman, as does Columbus Alive. Chart has also got a review of the Toronto show.

Photos: The New Pornographers, Okkervil River @ The Phoenix – April 9, 2008
MP3: The New Pornographers – “My Rights Versus Yours”
MP3: The New Pornographers – “Myriad Harbour”
MP3: Okkervil River – “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe”
Video: The New Pornographers – “Challengers”
Video: The New Pornographers – “Myriad Harbour”
Video: Okkervil River – “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe”
Video: Okkervil River – “Girl In Port”
MySpace: The New Pornographers
MySpace: Okkervil River

The Duke Chronicle talks to Jim Eno of Spoon, gets news on a new Okkervil River release. And head over to the band’s website to the “Bonus” section for a free MP3 of a demo version of “Cherry Bomb”. And t-shirt iron-on. For serious.

Mark Eitzel tells Reveille that he’s not nearly as dour and depressive as he’s made out to be, revisits his college days with Columbus Alive and debates the meaning of “happy” and “sad” with Artvoice. We’ll see what kind of mood he’s in when American Music Club play their first Toronto show in a decade and a half next Thursday night at Lee’s Palace.

The Post & Courier, Cleveland Scene Weekly and Pulse Niagara interview Explosions In The Sky.

PJ Harvey discusses White Chalk with Filter.

Drummer Eric Edman of Shout Out Louds shuffles his iPod for The AV Club, declares Feist a “very appealing woman”.

The Dallas Observer chats with Ra Ra Riot.

And a correction to a previously reported date – The Ting Tings show at the Mod Club is actually slated for June 16, not June 13. I don’t know where I got that but the important thing is that you can now go to this show AND Swervedriver… you know, if you want to.

By : Frank Yang at 8:37 am
Category: Uncategorized
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  1. Scott E says:

    Let me give a shout out to The Post and Courier, my hometown newspaper. Explosions in the Sky are at the Music Farm this Saturday and I’m stoked. I’ll have pics when I get back from the show. In the meantime, nice to hear the show was so good. The Pornos are really pushing this Challengers album aren’t they? Weird…

  2. cy says:

    Frank, fyi the encore included a cover of ELO’s Don’t Bring Me Down – nice, that. I thought Bissell was great too, and W-S was prancing a lot more than i remember from a year ago at Lee’s. a very good night, and i’m a guy who didn’t really get Challengerss and went more for Okk than the NPs. so yeah, there were a few of us in that boat.

  3. Aimz says:

    Interesting review. From my perspective about 2/3 of the way back in the audience, only about 1/4 of the audience was into Okkervil River, and most of them were up front. The people around me had to clue who OR was and they were chatting amongst each other for most of the opening set. I loved OR and I agree with you on Bissel’s guitar addition. It sounded fantastic and added new layers and textures to the songs. And Sheff’s voice was in perfect form. He is one of the best front men in indie rock right now.

    I wasn’t overly impressed with the NPs. Yeah, they put on a decent rock show, but I thought it was sort of dull. And, being 2/3 of the way back, it was hard to hear any of the banter. I thought that the singers mics should have been up a bit. Overall OK, but not nearly as good as OR. I left early too.

  4. JAB says:

    Speaking of Spoon… MERGE is reissuing Girls Can Tell and A Series of Sneaks on vinyl.

    So you won’t have to spend $70 on eBay anymore.

    Last I checked, there was no release date listed, but you can preorder at MERGE.

  5. alan says:

    Neko didn’t show up for the tour opener in Ottawa the night before. That was a bit of a low blow as she was clearly promoters for the show. Apparently the NPs didn’t tell the promoters that she wouldn’t be there. Definitely some unhappy people at the Ottawa show Tuesday night because of that. Land of Talk opened in Ottawa and were better than last time I saw them. So that’s good.

  6. lisa says:

    I thought Okkervil’s set felt really short too, but that’s probably because I was there for them moreso than NP. Will’s great, but since I couldn’t even see Travis last time, it was a real treat watching him this time ’round. What was up with the "No Photography/Audio/Video" signs? Good ol’ Phoenix.