BY DAVE ALLEN If the New Pornographers were tuckered-out from their triumphant Friday gig at the All Points West Festival, they didn’t show it at their Saturday show at the Electric Factory. The Canadian sextet pumped up the song tempos to the breaking point without sacrificing the rich, ‘60s-inspired textures, sunbeam harmonies and endorphin-triggering melodies that have made them a beloved fixture of the indie scene for going on a decade. In a set drawn equally from their last three studio albums, with one or two throwbacks to 2000’s Mass Romantic, poise and polish held sway, with chugging instrumentals and vocal harmonies, centered on frontman Carl Newman’s strong tenor and sweet falsetto, instantly jelling.
Newman and his comrades took a business-like approach to the buoyant tunes, with not much movement and little chatter. Newman did notethat the band played the Electric Factory on their first tour seven and a half years ago, saying sarcastically, “We’re much older now – we’re 27” (Newman turned 40 earlier this year). The group’s seasoning was evident: drummer Kurt Dahle brought thunder to his fills, and intricate work by lead guitarist Todd Fancey and bassist John Collins added depth to the wall-of-sound synths played by Kathryn Calder and Blaine Thurier. Collins got a finger-busting workout on “All the Things It Takes to Make Heaven and Earth,” and Fancey ably handled the jumpy melodies of “Twin Cinema” and “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras” at elevated tempos. A slight flub of a three-part harmony passage in “Use It” – Newman and Calder exchanged a glance that suggested she might have been the culprit – was the only snag in the band’s tightly-constructed set.
After closing out with “The Bleeding Heart Show” – another favorite taken up a few notches, speed-wise – and setting the previously-sedate crowd dancing, the Pornos brought a tongue-in-cheek twist to their encore: a cover of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Don’t Bring Me Down,” accompanied by the onstage appearance of a tuxedoed mannequin. They returned to their own catalog for the last two numbers, “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism” and “From Blown Speakers,” and dug in with the same thrilling cohesion they showed all night.
Andrew Bird’s opening set never quite jelled in that way. After starting out with just violin and his voice – a strong one, with echoes of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke or a less-moony Rufus Wainwright – Bird expanded his palette, looping samples recorded on violin, guitar and xylophone and bringing on a backing band. After their second song was plagued by feedback, Bird paused to work out “a few kinks,” but unfortunately, the kinks kept coming. Both Bird’s vocals and guitar crackled throughout the set, marring the lush sound that he and his band labored and looped to create. Even at 100 percent, the highly-layered sound sometimes wore thin, as Bird piled up sample after sample into a faux-orchestral soup on “Oh No,” among others. Though he’s sometimes labeled as “chamber-pop,” his set on Saturday was more like sustain-pedal pop, with notes and melodies bleeding messily together. Though Bird and his band found a chillingly good balance between spare-and-intimate and huge-and-layered on “Armchairs,” by that point – more than halfway through the set – too much feedback and fiddling-around had taken place. Bird noted before his last song that it had been “worth the struggle.” Kind of a stretch, sadly.