One of the problems with being a super-group is that you have to try and keep all your super-talented people in one place, which can be a bit like herding cats. Another problem with being a super-group is that people expect you to be super, all the time. It’s in the job title. The New Pornographers are a super-group, but they’re not super tonight. They’re good, yes. Entertaining? Certainly. But super? No.
The first problem is apparent from the moment they walk out on stage: they’ve let two of their super-talented cats slink away from the herd. There’s no Neko Case, and there’s no Dan Bejar. Bejar’s absence is particularly galling because it rules out the possibility of hearing Myriad Harbour, a quite remarkable song (listen to it at your soonest convenience if you’ve yet to).
So what about those who did turn up? Kathryn Calder is a fantastic singer and an engaging performer, but too often the absence of Case and Bejar made this feel like The AC Newman Show. Which is a good show, but it just makes things a little more conventional than one might hope for from a band with the breadth and depth of material that The New Pornographers have amassed.
Newman has a rambling stage persona that never quite clicks with the audience in the Electric Ballroom. He talks about avoiding the dreaded Icelandic ash cloud, dedicates a song to Winston Churchill and even refers self-deprecatingly to his own shambolic banter, but where he may have aimed for wry chuckles, what he gets is drunken heckles.
When the repartee gets awkward, he can always nudge the spotlight towards his trusty collection of perfect pop songs. When they’re good, they’re very, very good, and the crowd bounces along appreciatively to highlights like All The Old Showstoppers, My Rights Versus Yours and Mass Romantic. When they’re not good, they feel like they’re trying to illuminate their decade-long back catalogue with a candle, not a spotlight – distinctly underpowered.
There’s plenty of material from new record Together, as you’d expect. The set opens with Up In The Dark and new single Crash Years crops up early on as well. It’s never the new stuff the fans want to hear, though, so when the heckles turn into requests at the end of the night, the voices are calling out for Sing Me Spanish Techno, from Twin Cinema. The band duly obliges. It’s a crowd-pleasing conclusion to a performance that has had moments of real magic. To be really show-stopping, however, Newman needs to get the rest of his gang back together and turn up the volume. That’d be super.