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A More Intimate Version of Himself

October 23rd, 2012

A.C. Newman – The Bowery Ballroom – October 22, 2012


Two days after the close of the CMJ Music Marathon, the celestial music solstice marking the independent-music calendar’s embrace of unknown and rising stars, The Bowery Ballroom reserved its confines for one of the Old Guard. Carl Newman, playing as A.C. Newman behind his third solo record, took the stage as the Establishment, a man prodigiously talented enough that he began releasing solo material to accent his work with his larger and more well-known collective, the New Pornographers. The question was: What made this not the New Pornographers? Newman seemed almost self-consciously aware—this is a singer who proved he remembers his fans’ different haircuts from show to show and year to year—of being simply an alternate version of his parent band. And apart from that band, he was, in some sense, a more intimate version of himself. Neko Case was replaced on tour with the resplendent bangs of Megan Bradfield, and Newman opened with “I’m Not Talking,” the first single from Shut Down the Streets, a definitively separate take on the power pop that made the singer deservedly famous.

While Newman’s solo career and shows remain distinct, the bond between singer and audience blurred from the start. Newman resembles his fans, and his fans resemble him, a coincidence that probably isn’t one. Middle-aged men with close-cropped hair and thick-framed glasses who knew all the words to “On the Table” and “Secretarial,” songs that Newman, a middle-aged guy with close-cropped hair, sang back (or first) with no sense that snake might have been eating itself. Of course, Newman, arguably the best ear and pen for rugged pop songs since Stephen Malkmus, paid this only passing mind. Following the whistled bridge of “Drink to Me, Babe, Then” the crowd applauded, and Newman, recognizing this recognition of some minor bit of brilliance commented, “It’s one of the great marvels of modern man, how I whistle in key,” pausing only to add, “Proof that there is a God,” much to the delight and murmuring of his hyper-literate and (possibly) largely atheist fan base. It was a bit of faux self-aggrandizement, a bit of sarcastic evangelism, a joke only these people could fully appreciate—a joke they themselves might have made.

Newman closed the main set with “Come Crash,” his best love song and one he “wrote for my wife, two years before I met her,” and “Miracle Drug.” The band returned after a stomping bit of encore applause to play “Strings” and “Town Halo,” the latter producing the closest moment to transfiguration behind pounding keys and its shuddering bridge. It was, of course, what these people came to see, a singer apart from his band, perhaps even a little closer to his fans than he, or they, would be entirely willing to admit. So he returned to his earlier comment, a quick eulogy for a fan’s Mohawk, now shaved off, a previous haircut cataloged and remembered by the singer. The fan yelled, “Things change,” although he and Newman were both still here. —Geoff Nelson