Maybe it wasn't quite an open mic, but Saturday's New Pornographers/Dodos/Duchess and the Duke show in Milwaukee featured plenty of folks taking turns on vocals. Between the three bands, there were more lead vocalists than I've seen at one non-variety show, possibly ever. Despite my initial "I'm too old for this" grumpiness about multiple openers, I can't complain.
According to my sources in Chicago, The Duchess and the Duke were coming off a big night of drinking and performing at the Empty Bottle. Perhaps that's why they winced in pain when the spotlights came on. They requested the lights be dimmed, and then toward the end of the set, requested twice more that they be turned down. After that last request (which was just before the last song), the lighting guy turned the spotlight off entirely. Ha! Their finale of "I Am Just a Ghost" ended with everyone on stage singing the lyric a capella, over and over. I'm not sure how long they planned to continue, but the end came definitively when someone accidentally kicked over a microphone and the Pabst erupted in cheers.
The second openers, The Dodos, were very percussiony. That happens to be the quickest path to my heart upon first listen to any band, especially live. The drummer attached a tambourine to his foot via duct tape straps, and there was a vibraphone player who also had a drum kit. Two drum kits! What more could I ask for? Well...
The New Pornographers opened with "Sing Me Spanish Techno." Talk about setting the energy bar as high as possible. They were more than up to the challenge for the rest of night, and I think the crowd was too. It turns out Carl Newman loves both of the opening bands. "I'm not usually one for watching bands. I hate music. But I had to watch those guys." He also loves the Pabst, claiming he wants to change the vote he gave in a Pitchfork interview for best venue. Sure, he probably tells that to all the cities.
I have to consider the possibility that my slightly negative impression of the last NP's show I saw in Madison might have been due to the simple fact that it was my first NP's show without Dan Bejar, after having finally seen them with Dan in 2007. The wealth of talented individuals The New Pornos bring to the mix (including a cellist/saxophonist for a grand total of nine people in Milwaukee) notwithstanding, there's something magnetic about Dan Bejar. Whenever he took the stage, cheers of "DAN!" - mostly masculine - could be heard from the audience. The loafers and white pants (a look I somehow simultaneously associate with Europe and boating), the back-to-the-crowd guitar stance, the omnipresent glass of wine or beer bottle, the flourish of a bow before a quick exit after singing a song, the distinctive voice and inscrutable lyrics, the perpetual air of nonchalance ... all part of the package. I'd love to see Destroyer sometime.
Neko Case was in excellent voice as well. Though Kathryn Calder can more than hold her own vocally - and did on such songs as "Adventures in Solitude" - Neko's presence in the lineup shouldn't be underestimated. (And never seems to be, judging from reviews.) My favorite of her performances Saturday night was the powerful "My Shepherd." During the show, I realized I was standing in nearly the same spot I sat when Neko joined Jakob Dylan at the Pabst in April. Neko probably thinks she has a Milwaukee stalker now. Of course, it's possible that she does. While John Collins worked out a tuning issue, Carl announced he would take questions from the audience. Someone: "I LOVE NEKO!" Carl: "Could you phrase that in the form of a question? 'Why do I love Neko so much?'" Carl suggested it was because Neko makes dog cookies that are almost good enough for people to eat. Neko said actually, that wasn't her.
The questions continued: what does Dan do when he's not on stage? They didn't know for sure. Both Neko and Carl said they could guess, and put money on the fact that he was drinking beer or wine. At this juncture, Dan appeared on stage with a bottle of beer. He wandered over to Carl, conferred, and headed off again. Carl joked about his mysterious manner. "He just said something about an apothecary." Next question: what happened when your bus broke down? Carl: "Really? That's news? Since I slept through it, I'm going to say that ... the bus broke down, and it got fixed."
Dan's duo of Jackie songs - "Jackie" and "Jackie, Dressed in Cobras" - was fun to hear in the same show. Toward the middle of the set, Dan came out for a vocal turn. Carl demanded to know where Dan got his Spotted Cow, and whether he had a stash. Carl requested the bottle, which was handed over. He said this was all about giving; a good intro to the next song. Dan looked at him. "Isn't this 'Spirit of Giving?'" Carl asked. "I'm not holding a guitar..." Dan replied, grinning. "Oh, right. Never mind." Carl told Dan to get another beer, because it was too weird for him to be on stage without. Dan grabbed a PBR tallboy from the stash near the drum kit. He opened it, took a sip, and grimaced elegantly. Then began the song.
At one point, Carl impulsively asked for audience requests and then proceeded to shoot them all down. "I hope someone happens to request something we actually want to play," he explained. I called out for "Breakin' the Law," but it got lost in the shouting. Or ignored. Someday ... someday.
I'm now even more torn between my choices for August 4th: stay in town and see The New Pornographers again at the Orpheum, or trek back to Milwaukee for The National? Time will tell.
Printed setlist is accurate, except they didn't play "The Body Says No"