The New Pornographers – Philadelphia – The Electric Factory, PA – 2006-03-04

The New Pornographers
Where: Philadelphia – The Electric Factory, PA.

When: 2006-03-04

For being such a high-profile independent band, Belle & Sebastian sure hasn’t toured the states often, mostly flying over for one-night festival stands. This stop on their current trip with the New Pornographers was only their fourth Philadelphia show ever. This isn’t so surprising if you consider the fact that for the better part of their 10-year existence, the beloved Belle & Sebastian was a shy little indie group from Glasgow that played very few shows and avoided the press almost entirely, relying solely on the strength of their nostalgic, folky pop music on records like 1997’s If You’re Feeling Sinister.

Something happened as the years went by, however, and after the departure of Stuart Murdoch’s longtime girlfriend and fellow member Isobel Campbell, right when the band was starting to self-caricaturize, their direction began to change. 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress was a summer parade of horns and flutes, a block party for the bookish. Now, with the release of their latest record, The Life Pursuit, Belle & Sebastian have confirmed their newfound status as introverts turned confident maestros, updating their sound by looking back to their old 70s funk and rock records for inspiration, and in the process both winning back and gaining new followers.

So fans were dying to see how their “Favorite Scottish Band Ever” would fare live in its current electrified state. The combined stature of Belle & Sebastian and the New Pornographers, the quick “fast food” pop fix of the indie-rock world, ensured the rapid selling-out of this Electric Factory bill. The demand got to the point where single tickets were being eBayed for up to $70, a phenomenal price for an indie show. But as a friend told me before the show, “this is one indie band that is definitely worth that price.”

I arrived shortly after the listed start time, and already the venue was packed to the gutter. The New Pornographers started promptly, playing through their set of supercharged pop songs with precision and energy. Unlike their October show at the Trocadero (“Philly’s most reputable seat of old pornography,” once-Philadelphian Nick Sylvester quipped in a review for the Village Voice), some-time members Neko Case and Destroyer aka Dan Bejar were not touring with the group, instead choosing to take time out for their new (and highly recommended) solo records, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and Destroyer’s Rubies, respectively. But the lack of their drawing yet distracting presence actually made the group tighter and less prone to excessive stage banter. (At the Troc show, I’m pretty sure they talked as much as they played).

The New Pornos’ efficiency helped their guitar/rhythm/organ-driven sound really sparkle, increasing their stage presence; they towered above on the Factory’s high platform like demigods of the indie world, without sacrificing any of their accessibility. They kept every rhythm and hit every note, but like animatronics-turned-humans, they never gave the appearance of being mechanized. They were like the best of opening bands: concise and leaving the audience energized for the headliner. Carl Newman, perhaps keenly aware of his band’s slot as openers, was even wearing a brand new, straight-from-the-merch B&S t-shirt — a true fan grateful to be playing with his heroes.

As the New Pornography was taking hold, more and more people began to arrive, slowly but steadily. I was standing on a slightly raised platform at the back near the stairs to the bar/balcony, and people kept excusing their way past me toward this area near the flat-screen monitors; like a dripping faucet, they just kept coming until I became certain someone had to be breaking physics. I also began to notice how demographically diverse the audience was, with maybe just one thing in common: emotional attachment to one of the most fervently loved indie groups of the last 10 years.

The New Pornographers finished at just the right time, leaving the audience satisfied and ready for what they’d been waiting for. Scotland’s best middle-distance runners trotted onstage looking bright and beautiful like in their many photographs, with leader Stuart Murdoch in a form-fitting, striped t-shirt and guitarist/sidekick Stevie Jackson sporting a dashing mod-ish suit. Stuart also thought the same of the audience, remarking on all the “lovely faces” with a beaming smile.

Removing audience concerns that their show would be all about the new songs, Belle & Sebastian opened with “Expectations,” a track from their very first record Tigermilk. They then launched into “Another Sunny Day,” a classically B&S song from their new record, and any lingering images of the bashful group that first formed in 1996 were quickly erased.

With all the appropriate instrumentation, including trumpet and keyboard, Belle & Sebastian sounded at least as good as on record. They performed with a presence and panache that, like their melodies, was instantly infectious. On Stevie’s lone Life Pursuit track, the bouncy “To Be Myself Completely,” Stuart took to cavorting up and down the stage, swinging his arms with gleeful abandon; even the band’s dancing was laced with hugability.

Fans happily followed suit, swinging hips and bobbing heads in whatever sort of restrained movement could be had in the tight space between them and the next person, moving to songs like the discothèque-y “Electronic Renaissance” and the organ rocker “Sukie in the Graveyard.”

As Belle & Sebastian played on, they touched upon their entire catalog; “this is a B-side of a B-side,” said Stuart, introducing a track from the Jonathan David single, “Slow Graffiti.” “We’re now going to play the fourth track of the second side of our first record,” the vinyl-lover in Stevie declared, speaking of the now-tongue-in-cheek “I Don’t Love Anyone.”

Surprisingly absent from the set were tracks from Belle & Sebastian’s most widely treasured record, If You’re Feeling Sinister — absent, that is, until the encore. Stevie broke out the harmonica for “Me and the Major,” which was followed by album closer “Judy and the Dream of Horses.”

Left for last, however, was “Sleep the Clock Around,” a beautifully climactic song that summed up the night in all the best ways: “Now the trouble is over, everybody got paid / everybody is happy / they are glad that they came / then you go to the place where you’ve finally found / you can look at yourself, sleep the clock around.” All true save for the last line: Belle & Sebastian are wide-awake and enjoying every moment of their brilliant career.