In concert: Neon Indian (Toronto; October 18, 2011)

Alan Palomo said, “I’m pretty sure this is the fourth time we’ve played Lee’s Palace, and bar none, it’s the most people we’ve ever seen here.” Before a clammy crowd dressed uncertainly for the first cold weather of the season, Palomo’s Neon Indian delivered a rousing, hour-long affirmation of a rising talent’s sundry charms.

The chillwave class of ’09 is leaving its wobbly origins behind, trading idiosyncratic, bent pop for gussied-up, neo new wave, a crowded field with some commercial impact. Last month, Era Extraña lifted Palomo into the top 75 in the U.S., where he can count on Jimmy Fallon show appearances and pole positions at various festivals to get his music across. Toronto’s long been a stronghold for Anglophilic indie, and Palomo’s obviously noted the uptick in NI’s fortunes. It was shoulder-to-shoulder between stage and soundboard on Tuesday.

Neon Indian’s got the tools to make the transition stick, too. Although Extraña dispensed with the baked, retro-goggled fizz of the superb Psychic Chasms, Palomo’s new songs have a sturdy classicism about them: a solid build that rewards multiple listens, lyrics that don’t fall apart on the page, melodies that stick. As with his music press appearances, onstage he’s likable, comfortable: few band leads might smash their lip on the mike while geeking out over a joke, and then reference it with an even geekier aside in the encore. There’s nothing shameful about geeking out when a packed club is sweating to your art, by the way. Don’t ever change, Alan.

Generally, the touring faction doesn’t contribute to the records, but you wouldn’t know it. They’re a tight squad. Keyboardist Leanne Macomber and drummer Jason Faries are the touring vets; Ed Priesner (keys) and Josh McWhirter (axes) signed on after guitarist Ronnie Gierhart left at the end of 2010. The well-drilled unit gives Palomo the company he needs to indulge his frontman tendencies. The tunes’re danceable; Palomo wants to dance. The live Neon Indian is better for the bonhomie.

Extraña bears a familiar cross for one-man studio bands, where some of the better lead lines get buried in a no-showboating, evenhanded mix. Watch Neon’s classic first Fallon appearance from winter 2010, when Gierhart’s tangled, searing bursts gave “Terminally Chill” and “Ephemeral Artery” surprisingly punky punch. McWhirter – who did contribute to the new record – performs the same function now. Ably, too. The rest of the live heft comes from Faries. Again, more punch. He pumped the break after the first chorus in “Fallout” with a tumbling tom-tom pattern straight out of OMD’s aesthetically similar “Souvenir,” a 21-second stretch that thrilled. I hoped to hear it again in the next break – I didn’t – because it’s one of those live additions that transforms a good song into a hefty slice of awesome. (I’d love it on the outro, Alan. Think about it.)

Psychic Chasms songs outnumbered new songs. That was surprising. Not disappointing in itself, because Chasms is stuffed with choice tunes and I’m not ready to kiss ’em goodbye just yet. It was surprising because Palomo benched several viable candidates (“Halogen [I Could Be A Shadow],” “Suns Irrupt” and the non-album “Sleep Paralysist”), turning in a 57-minute set that felt short, even by club standards. ‘Sup, guy?

Those Chasms oldies nosed out the Extraña tracks on the audience response meter. “6669 (I Don’t Know If You Know)” had a sighing slinkiness only hinted at on the record (it sure got Leanne swaying), while a Eurodisco glide unbuckled “Should Have Taken Acid With You”‘s belt, and coaxed a great pop vocal from Palomo, with some nice rhythmic interplay between Faries and McWhirter. The abrasive, sci-fi pops’n’farts remain high in the mix, but groove makes for a pretty exciting running mate.

Speaking of the mix, a complaint: Palomo prefers to bury his vocals. Don’t know if I like that. He’s writing songs, good ones; why not let the words breathe a little? “Polish Girl,” Extraña‘s excellent lead single, suffered in concert as it did on Fallon. It frankly sounds like an accident, but it’s clearly by design. I’ve read he’s a little pitch-challenged on occasion, but couldn’t pick out any glaring offences at Lee’s.

In the encore, Palomo saluted “one of the fucking coolest audiences we’ve had this tour.” The fucking cool audience roared back. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

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