Posted by: Jeff | June 8, 2010

Live Review: The National (DAR Constitution Hall, 6/6/10)

Photo via BrightestYoungThings

For pictures of the show, I recommend checking out the review over at BrightestYoungThings.

To listen to The National, check out yesterday’s mixtape.

There’s a depth to The National that isn’t there with a lot of other indie bands.  Nobody puts emotional weight in their music – or performance of it – quite like The National.  From the intentional deliberateness of orchestration – both live and on record – to the frayed and damaged sound and appearance of frontman Matt Berninger, this is a band that lives and breathes their music.  The National feel one part performance act, one part performance art.  They perform to entertain, but also to edify and expand upon the emotion and meaning behind the music.  Attending a show by The National is as much a trip to the theater as it is to the club.

All of this is prelude to the observation that The National were phenomenal on the stage of DAR Constitution Hall, a venue I detest for its ability to make boring every rising indie act that outgrows the 930 Club.  Seated shows are the bane of a pop act, but with the audience rooted mostly to their seats, The National proceeded to offer a wonderfully reverent and immersive show.

Lead track “Runaway” was an immediate highlight.  The slowly-building orchestration – which saw the band add elements and interplay them in almost medley fashion – was simply stunning.  The lighting and sound were top notch, drawing the listener all in right away.  Berninger’s restrained – almost maddeningly so – vocal performance belied much beauty – and release – to come.  It was a gorgeous start to the night.

From there, The National unleashed the big guns.  The band ripped through favorites “Mistaken for Strangers” and “Slow Show”, both from 2007’s Boxer and together the most popular releases by the band, in the first quarter of the show.  The most accessible and radio-ready track from the new album, “Bloodbuzz, Ohio”, also came right out the gate.  For any other band, this would be a case of horrible top-heavy sequencing, dooming the rest of the set to a boring decrescendo.  But not this band.

Tracks like “Conversation 16” and “All the Wine” – lost amid the acclaim for more immediate tracks in the tracklistings for their respective albums – transformed live into highlights.  Rather than simply replicate songs from the album, The National also experimented with arrangements, completely obscuring the melody and signature drums of “Apartment Story” until the first chorus erupted from the obscurity of a slow ambling waltz.  Encore closer “About Today” swelled magnificently, and felt like a joyous celebration rather than a solemn dedication to regret.

The National get labeled a melancholy band with nothing but slow-burners in their repertoire – and it is true that the band is most on top of their game when churning out beautiful soundscapes like those of “Sorrow” or “England”.  But the band also rocks when they feel the urge.  “Abel” saw Berninger practically lose his mind – and his footing – on stage as he raged on about his mind being “not right.”  He threw his microphone down violently at the end of Squalor Victoria, another indication that he feels every performance acutely.  And few bands rival the energy of The National, when, in the midst of Alligator’s Mr. November – a track about nearly losing a record contract (and subsequent fame) to a severe bout of writer’s block – Berninger scrambled haphazardly to the top of a speaker tower and launched himself into the balcony of Constitution Hall.  From there he proceeded to the very top of the auditorium, together with elated fans towering above the rest of the audience as they screamed “I’m Mr. November, I won’t f**k us over” again and again.  Berninger is so earnest that when he sings “I’m the blue blood/I’m the great white hope” you start to believe him.

Tracks from the new album, too, sounded amazing.  The expansive auditorium magnified the ambiance of many softer songs.  “England”, for instance, sounded so remarkable that I went home and played it 5 times in a row the next day stunned that I hadn’t given it any notice in previous listens to the album.  Such was the artistry with which many of the new songs were performed live that they made an immediate impact that even a dozen listens on record couldn’t produce.

If you’re at all a fan of The National, you truly must see them live.  It is a wonderful blend of audio and visual performance that transcends what they put on record – which is already among the most cerebral and intellectual music being released today.  The New York Times feature on the band this past April exposed a group of deliberate musicians intent on conveying exactly what they mean with every note and every line – seen live, this is even more effective.  The National may well be the best band currently touring.

Openers The Antlers are also an act that blends performance with art.  Playing mostly tracks from their latest album, Hospice, a concept album about a young volunteer at a youth cancer ward who falls in love with a terminally ill patient, you had to admire the bravery of a band that so baldly exposes raw emotion.  On record, many tracks off Hospice feel like lullabies or laments, slow soothing or brooding guitars and synths overlaid by the unique and frayed vocals of frontman Peter Silberman.  Live, the band played with more abandon, using sound as a form of anguish – morose sullenness gave way to frustration and even anger.  “Two” and “Wake” sounded particularly good, balancing tender with release, while album juggernaut “Kettering” suffered considerably from a tinny mix and a little too much reverberation.

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Responses

  1. This is a great review. Spot on. I’ve been in love with them since early 2007. The sound at DAR was a bit off sometimes, as you mentioned with Kettering. It’s a shame. I also think his mic was too low at times. The sound guy should know his voice is so low that the mic needs to be cranked up a bit. 🙂 I hope you don’t mind if I link your review onto my blog this month.

    • I don’t mind at all, and I’m glad you liked the show and the review!

      Cheers!

  2. […] great posts about the show can be found here and here. Video via […]

  3. […] 10. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart/Surfer Blood 9. Florence + The Machine 8. Miike Snow 7. The New Pornographers 6. Beach House 5. The xx 4. Spoon 3. Thievery Corporation 2. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club 1. The National […]

  4. […] saw The National in June, and they delivered one of the best sets I’ve ever seen.  Given that I first learned of the band by hearing them at a festival where they really grabbed […]

  5. […] great posts about the show can be found here and here. Video via […]

  6. […] seen The Antlers once before as they toured in support of Hospice, I came to the Black Cat mostly curious about how the songs […]


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