by Scott Allen
At its core, rock & roll is a simple art form.
Though at times, AC Newman piles layers of sounds and effects to gain the aesthetic he's searching for, the three minute pop song still conveys everything he needs. In the last decade-plus, the prolific songwriter has honed his wide array of pop skills over five albums with the New Pornographers and his three solo efforts. Last night he brought those skills to St. Louis with complementary opening act of the Mynabirds in tow. The promise of an evening of indie rock had the Duck Room half full of mostly 30-somethings buzzing and ready to be entertained.
Fronting the Mynabirds, the lithe and beautiful Laura Burhenn and her band took the stage a little after 8 p.m. for solid 45 minute opening set. She wore a denim vest with her band's t-shirt design on the back over a mini skirt and black stockings. The tiny Burhenn relied less on her keyboard playing and more on the bass of Patrick Damphier and the guitar and pedal steel work of Tom Hnatow to help her create the color of the music.
Her breathy voice soothed at the lower end of the register as her band mate Rebecca Marie Miller pitched in with higher harmonies. When Damphier and drummer Nicole Childrey chimed in, it became a thing of true beauty. Both Buhrenn and Miller danced and moved about the front of the cramped stage.
Highlights of the Mynabirds set included the bouncy "Let The Record Show" and the sparse, haunting waltz of Give It Time" from the 2010 record What We Lose In The Fire We Gain in the Flood. The biggest impact from the new album, Generals, came from the songs "Disaster," which Burhenn dedicated to Sandy, and the title track.
The soft spoken Newman keeps his solo career completely separate from his more well-known work with his Canadian super group. In between the critically acclaimed work of the New Pornos, Newman has carved out time for a solo career that has culminated in the recently released Shut Down The Streets. The album chronicles an emotional time in Newman's life, including the death of his mother. He dedicated this one to her. The set featured little banter from Newman -- he spoke mostly to his band while they tore through seventeen songs in just 71 minutes. He may not be quite as dry a stage presence as Jay Farrar, but Newman isn't exactly effusive up there.
Newman played the majority of the new record with some selections from his previous two albums: Get Guilty and The Slow Wonder. Newman's solo material lacks the sort of surefire standout hit he's got in spades with the Pornos.
As a solo artist, Newman hasn't really punched through -- the possible exception being "Prophets," which was featured in a season-ending episode of the CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother. Newman wryly referenced this brush with prime time last night, saying he was "living the dream."
On songs from Get Guilty -- "The Palace at 4 a.m." and "The Changeling (Get Guilty)" in particular -- Newman hit his power pop stride, but the muddy mix of the vocals combined with his already nasally delivery did not do justice to the powerful emotions contained in the new material. On the whole it was a pleasant enough evening of rock music. But given the quality of Newman's track record, I was hoping for better.
Personal Bias: I tend to cringe when a musician teaches an audience what to sing or do during one of her songs, as Laura Burhenn did when she led the crowd through a call and response for the title track from the new record.
Overheard: "I'm feeling kind of J. Crew today. Anybody want to order a Simon Cowell sweater?" - AC Newman, commenting on the St. Louis weather.
Setlist I'm Not Talkin' The Palace at 4 a.m. On The Table Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns Prophets Strings The Changeling (Get Guilty) You Could Get Lost Out Here Drink To Me, Babe, Then Do Your Own Time The Should Have Shut Down The Streets Like A Hitman, Like a Dancer Come Crash The Heartbreak Rides Hostages Miracle Drug Encore There's Money In New Wave