“Right after this show, we’re going to be driving all night,” announced Carl Newman about a third of the way through his performance at T.T. the Bear’s Place in Cambridge. The reason for the rush: he had been offered a spot on the next day’s episode of the new cable talk show McEnroe. It was an offer too good to pass up.
The dense crowd of concert-goers didn’t seem to notice the implication of the announcement. They seemed too engrossed in watching one of the more talked-about indie singer-songwriters of this still-young decade. Newman, who has adopted the moniker “A.C.” for his new solo album, The Slow Wonder, gained most of his recognition through his main band, The New Pornographers—a collection of superb Canadian musicians who, when they have time between each of their own solo projects, create some of the most energizing, flat-out fun rock ‘n’ roll in existence. Newman is the bashful leader of the band, writing and singing lead on most songs, and helping to give the music its zany production style.
I first experienced Newman’s considerable skill when I heard The New Pornographers’ 2000 debut Mass Romantic, and since then his work has been on my very short “must-follow” list. I grabbed a copy of the new solo album as soon as it was released this spring, and found it filled with plenty of the crunchy chords and falsetto sing-alongs that I’d loved about his previous work. I was eager to see how the experience would translate to a live setting. If Newman was capable of such fantastic arrangements of his rock-solid songwriting in the studio, imagine all of the surprises he must have in store for his beloved audience in the concert hall (or in this case, the bar).
The band began by launching into arguably the catchiest track off The Slow Wonder—”On the Table”—maintaining the song’s trademark bouncy piano, slinky bass, and multi-part harmonies almost verbatim. Newman was not skimping on instrumentation here. Whereas many independent performers tour alone or with a musical copilot, here in all its glory was a full band. Indeed, throughout the performance, which clocked in at just over an hour, each song was unfurled exactly as it sounds on the album, even in length.
Given that, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of a letdown. True, the labor that must have gone into replicating the sound of the album is impressive (trumpet solos and all), but when I attend a live concert, I expect something more, something transcendent. The performer can extend the length of his songs, using improvisation to elaborate on a simple groove—which was done exactly once, during the encore closer “The Battle for Straight Time.” Or he can throw in an unusual arrangement of a familiar song—a simple, plaintive ballad becomes a driving rock number, or vice versa. Even stage antics can create a memorable show. Apart from intermittently hyperactive guitarist Shane Nelken and a poking match that nearly broke out between Newman and bassist CoCo Culbertson, the band was pretty sedate.
Perhaps they were, as I suspected, engaged in a rare rote performance, which would be followed by a grueling night of travel to New York to appear on John McEnroe’s television show. Or maybe A.C. Newman’s real skill lies in the studio—meticulously tinkering with every last sound until it arrives at maximum catchiness. In any case, I had hoped for more. But when you’re standing there, enjoying the presence of one of today’s most talented musical artists, can you really complain?