Canada’s cherished indie band, The New Pornographers, treated Santa Cruz to a generous helping of pop delight at the Rio Theatre Sunday. The sold-out crowd that filled the rows of seats and spilled into a sea of bopping heads in front of the stage was a diverse slice of Santa Cruz indeed—ranging in age from happy infants strapped to their parents to dancing singles and senior couples.
Although the sight of seven band members coming onstage at once may signal a chaotic wall of noise, the band’s methodical demeanor turned out layers of melody and staccato rhythms—both sung and played—in a way that let all seven talents shine through.
Solo artist Neko Case was an undeniable attraction for many, and she energetically contributed to the vocal harmonies while keeping a shimmering tambourine beat.
“She [Case] is just so talented. I love her and her voice. She is also very humorous, and that's just a plus. I wasn't expecting her voice to be as powerful and clear as on their albums, but it was, and it was just a lovely surprise,” said Santa Cruz local Iris Diaz, 15.
Sweet vocal harmonies are a signature of the New Pornographers. Frontman Carl Newman laid down confident lead vocals while Case, keyboardist Kathryn Calder and guitarist Dan Bejar chime in with perfect precision. The effect was a melodic, pulsing harmony, which was mostly clear, although Calder and Case’s voices were overpowered at times.
“It was really close harmony; they have wonderful tone quality,” said Sven Olafsan, 32, of Santa Cruz. "They really have to be on pitch, because it’s all really subtle changes, and they have to be in synch for it to sound good.”
The band jumped into “Moves” off the latest album Together (2010) but didn’t focus primarily on the newest work.
“They played a solid, catchy set-list that spanned five albums," said Jennifer Bolen, 28, who drove from San Jose to see the band for the first time. "I was especially pleased to hear some songs off of Challengers, which was their next to most recent album. I thought they'd skip over those tracks to play older songs for fans and then newer songs to promote their new album.
"I've been to a lot of shows in Santa Cruz but this was my first time at the Rio, and I was surprised at how crisp the sound was given the layout."
Other highlights were the totally danceable, piano-laced “Use It” off of the album Twin Cinema (2005); the intricately synchronized “Sweet Talk” off Together (2010); and the inspiring “Go Places” off Challengers (2007), which showcased the crystal depth of Case’s voice.
The band bounced back on stage for a generous encore, which included “Challengers” and the ever-popular and catchy “Sing Me Spanish Techno” off Twin Cinema (2005). Case also took the opportunity to thank the opening band, Menomena, which didn't actually show up to play, because they were stuck playing at Coachella. "Hopefully they will sense our scorn," she joked.
The New Pornographers will continue its tour to San Francisco and then go zigzagging across the United States to spread its seeds of tightly packed pop songs sung against the backdrop of a very impressive light show. Keyboardist and singer, Kathryn Calder, will play solo on May 10 at Moe’s Alley.
Next door at the Backstage Lounge, The Rio Theatre's bar and eatery, chef Lenny Calandrino reported a packed house.
"It was a great night," said Calandrino, between flipping patties for his soon-to-be-famous sliders. "We were slammed right before the slow and then again after the show."