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September 29, 2010
The Uptown Theater
It seems appropriate that The National
is still performing at campaign rallies
with President Obama. After all, both the commander-in-chief and the politically active band seem to bring out the same trait in people: divisiveness.
There are basically two opposing schools of thought when it comes to The National: those who think the band's last three albums (2005's Alligator
, 2007's Boxer
and 2010's High Violet
) are sleeper masterpieces, and those who think they're downright narcoleptic.
If any naysayers made it out to the band's surprisingly upbeat and conversational performance at the Uptown Theater on Wednesday night, there's a good chance they're now converts. In front of a simple backdrop, the band played a thorough mix of new and old tracks from the holy trinity (as well as the awesome "Available" from the often-overlooked Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers LP) with more life and musical curiosity than one would expect from a group that's been called "sad bastard music" on more than one occasion.
"Slow Show," for example, felt less compressed onstage than its album counterpart, while "Squalor Victoria" was given an extended drum-violin-clapping intro that drew in a somewhat subdued audience. These were subtle changes, certainly, but the variations gave new life to well-worn album favorites.
That's not to say the show wasn't without a few pitfalls, although most of them weren't the band's fault.
"This is a great venue," declared lead singer Matt Berninger, comparing the distinctive theater to "The Pirates of the Caribbean" before launching into the creepy stalker ballad, "Brainy."
What he didn't know was that the venue itself would be the band's worst enemy. Getting any band to sound good in a flat, cavernous theater is tricky, and Berninger's chilly baritone and and the rest of the band -- which swelled to eight people at times (including a trumpeter and trombonist) -- lost a little too much personality and swagger to that squelchy abyss.
Berninger's voice -- which, depending on the song, can be buttery-smooth ("Daughters of the Soho Riots") or post-punk screamy ("Mr. November") -- seemed like it was fighting to be heard over the emptiness. Whether it was that, a head cold or just the rigors of touring, he seemed a bit raspy from time to time while uttering the often cocky, near-poetic non-sequitors he's known for writing (I'm a perfect piece of ass, like every Californian, he claimed on the evening's best moment, "All the Wine").
Oddly enough, the night's opening act, Canada's Owen Pallett, didn't seem to be as affected by the space, and it may have had something to do with his more stripped-down stage approach. The multi-instrumentalist took the stage by himself (he was later joined by another musician who backed him up on bass, guitar and light percussion), removed his shoes and began recording and layering snippets of his own violin and keyboard playing. By the end of a song, the multiple layers under his stunning voice cascaded down spectacularly, leaving one wondering how one person could fill such a big room with such a huge wall of sound.
Luckily, the National show was worth overlooking a bit of sketchy audio. Much like their albums, the National's live show is a slow burner, and it took about four or five songs for the crowd to really start to process and react to what they were seeing.
That worked out well for Berninger, as he also seemed to need a little time to loosen up and assume the public persona that's been assigned to him. While the rest of the band played along like everyday rock stars, Berninger's stage presence shifted back and forth between nervous pacing on "Fake Empire" to staring at the floor for the entirety of "Abel."
Berninger's restrained cockiness seemed to suit the audience just fine, and that's not surprising: whether it's genuine or just acting, The National seem comfortable playing the role they've been given by the press and by the haters. Wednesday night's show just proved that the band's talent runs much deeper than any two-dimensional caricature can portray.
Critic's Bias: I think "All the Wine" is the most lyrically brilliant song in at least a decade. Just don't ask me to explain what it means.
Random Notebook Dump: Broken aisle seat, floor level, three rows from the front? Yep. I did that. Is the Uptown getting more rickety, or am I just getting fatter? Probably both.
Mistaken for Strangers
Afraid of Everyone
Available medley (I missed the second half; if you know it, please leave a comment)
Daughters of the Soho Riots
All the Wine