New York’s River to River Festival’s display of free-dom on July 4 brought the New Pornographers and Midlake to Castle Clinton in Battery Park for a gratis concert. As for whether or not watching a Canadian band was as patriotic as, say, going to a barbecue, competing in a hot-dog eating contest or watching a fireworks display, vocalist A.C. Newman said, “We’re Canadian, which is basically the same thing.”
Newman and co-lead singer Neko Case (who, busy with her solo career, made a rather rare live appearance with the band) led the Vancouver group through an eighty-five minute set balancing songs from The Challengers, due August 21, with songs from their three previous albums, including the critically acclaimed 2005 release, Twin Cinema.
The band was without Dan Bejar (a.k.a. Destroyer), and they managed by avoiding all but one of the tracks he wrote on Twin Cinema. The Bejar-less rendition of “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” was faintly tamer than the recording, which could be chalked up to the outdoor venue. “Use It” and “Sing Me Spanish Techno” brought forth the energy of dueling vocalists, and new songs like “All You Old Show-Stoppers” and “My Rights Versus Yours” gave an idea of what to anticipate in August: the same brand of bouncy power chords and keyboards thriving behind the two vocalists.
Newman and Case’s dialogue about the Statue of Liberty, as seen from their Battery Park stage viewpoint, was indicative of the band’s playful nature. “Ain’t she a grand ole dame,” Newman mocked, to which Case added, “And French.” Such playfulness has been evident since the band’s 2000 debut, Mass Romantic. Their catalog seems predicated on pseudo-serious themes with intriguing ideas. “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” for example, could not be the work of a non-thinking songwriter, yet what exactly is Newman suggesting when he wails, “The hourglass spills its sand/ if only to punish you/ for listening too long/ to one song/ listening too long/ to one song/ Sing me Spanish techno”?
In a rewarding encore well-worth fighting the rain, the band hit all three releases. After “These are the Fables” from Twin Cinema, they segued into “Testament to Youth in Verse” off 2003’s Electric Version, and then reached back to Mass Romantic for “Slow Descent into Alchoholism.”
Midlake, from Denton, Texas, opened the show with a forty-five minute set including songs from their two albums, including last year’s The Trials of Van Occupanther. Although Tim Smith’s propensity for the croon blended with overcast skies for much of the set, the band members revved up the second half of their set with songs like “Roscoe.”