Live Review: The National, 6/7/07, The Metro, Chicago
For a band that constantly sings about disappointment, regret and barely registering one’s own existence in a faux-Rome, The National sure knew how to deliver a hell-of-a-show. Much like the band’s recorded oeuvre, the Brooklyn-based group’s (touring behind their latest album, Boxer) live show started out slow and steady, but finished with a raging passion and intensity that would be only rivaled by…well, a boxer.
The National choose to lead off the night by emphasizing the more subdued and atmospheric aspect of their sound. Using Yo La Tengo’s “Everyday” as entrance music and emerging from a smoky, purple light (one of the concert’s funniest moments involved singer Matt Berninger requesting that a dry-smoke machine be taken off stage), the band opened with two laid-back cuts from Boxer, “Start a War” and “Anthem.”
Both songs started out quiet and patiently, with circular, repetitive guitar and piano arpeggios laying the stage for choruses on a grand scale. Berninger’s robust baritone, reminiscent of Leonard Cohen and Ian Curtis, gave voice to characters that are past their prime and are bitterly disappointed with the hand that life has given them. But still, they manage to enjoy what they have and appreciate the simpler pleasures of life, even if it is just staying home and watching television. It’s as if The National personify the slow realization that everything will eventually turn out for the better, even if present circumstances are less than ideal.
What The National does best is turn melancholy emotions into uplifting songs. “Anthem,” in particular, was a strong embodiment of that bittersweet emotion, and an even stronger indication of what The National is truly great at. As my internet buddy David Brusie said, they’re as transcendent as U2. But unlike the latter-day incarnation of that band, The National actually earns their grandeur without resorting to cheap sentimentality. Judging by the austere acoustic strumming and Berninger’s low, almost muttered, vocals that start off “Anthem,” you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be absolutely floored by the most straightforward of combinations: a spare, piano line and the words “you know I dreamed about you/for twenty-nine years/before I saw you.”
But there we all were, in Chicago’s legendary Metro club, having our minds blown by a sentiment that would undoubtedly come off as sappy and maudlin in any other hands. However, since most songs by The National begin in a modest fashion, they have nowhere to go but up. It takes a certain kind of genius to write a winning crowd-pleaser about “staying in until somebody finds us/do(ing) whatever the T.V tells us,” and an even better kind of genius to sell that song to a crowd that very well could have taken that advice instead of seeing the band (Chicago was supposed to have storms with winds of up to 80 to 100 m.p.h. the night that The National played).
However, the band more than made sure that the audience was rewarded for braving the elements by showcasing the best cuts from Alligator and Boxer. “Fake Empire” contained the best summation of this sort decade thus far (“we’re half-awake in a fake empire”) and renditions of songs like “Abel” and “Mr. November” pleased the enthusiastic crowd greatly. The two sets of brothers which comprise The National’s instrumental section (Aaron and Bryce Dessner; Scott and Bryan Devendorf) made for a particularly taut musical outfit, with instruments (especially violin) being torn into with an unbridled passion.
That brand of passion was apparent throughout the entire night. But by slowly but surely revealing their enthusiasm, and by patiently building their glorious choruses brick by musical brick, The National rewarded their listener’s patience and loyalty by giving them an entire concert’s worth of memorable songs and moments.
Opening for The National were Shapes and Sizes and Talkdemonic. Talkdemonic had a great musical conception, with moody, minor-key guitar arpeggios and jazzy, pre-recorded, organ and drum-machines being enhanced by live violin and drums. However, most of their songs ended with the same, sudden, anti-climatic non-resolution. Eventually, the unpredictability of their songs became quite predictable and, thus, less interesting. A lack of variety in the tempo and format of their songs contributed to the problem, as well. For all the beauty in their arrangements and skilled musicianship, Talkdemonic suffered mostly from the lack of a songwriter in the group. The band’s instrumental songs would make great study music though.
Note to Shapes and Sizes: Before you can be deconstructive, you have to know how to actually construct something. Like, say, songs. The band aimed for the fragmative sounds of groups like Deerhoof and The Fiery Furnaces, but ended up failing to reach those heights miserably. What was supposed to sound like a musical detour ended up just sounding like a sloppy, shambling attempt to throw together a bunch of musical styles at once in desperate attempt to find one, any one, that works. The less said about the singer’s attempt to hit very high notes, the better.
(Jonathan Graef and April Wright)
(Photo by Autumn Notter)
A version of this article was published at Yerp Magazine.