Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Live Review: The National @ the National, June 22

Evidently, the novelty of seeing the National play at the National was not lost on my fellow Richmonders. Sure, I haven’t actually seen all that many shows here since relocating last fall, but the National is a big place, and the it was heaving with people. I ventured up to the nosebleed section to avoid the creeping feelings of claustrophobia, and to enjoy a birds-eye view of a band I hadn’t quite realized I had missed so much. The cynical part of me wondered just how many of the assembled masses were here simply to see the double National, while the slightly less cynical part of me felt a little proud that my beloved quintet was now drawing such large crowds.

When last I saw them, the National was touring their absurdly good album Alligator, and the Black Cat was moderately full. The mood was somewhat somber; mouthpiece Matt Berninger was sick and unhappy, and though the show was phenomenal the aftertaste was not so sweet. But something was palpably different this night, from the moment the band walked onstage to the strains of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” to the last note of the second encore. Maybe it was the crowd’s unbridled affection given voice in rapturous cheers before and after every single song. Maybe it was the band, enjoying headlining a show after a month spent opening for R.E.M. (as Berninger said, “it’s so nice to play inside at night again.”). Maybe it was just the goofiness of playing a venue with the same name as your band. Whatever it was, the band, and for that matter the crowd, was better than I ever thought possible. And believe you me, that’s pretty fucking good.

For most of the set, the spacious stage was full, the original five being aided by a trio of boys with horns, keys, and a violin. It seemed imperative the plus three were there, as they helped give the songs a richness beyond even what the albums offer. It took about half of opening song “Start a War” for me to start thinking how much I love this band. In a way, they’re a classic American rock band; poignant lyrics and strong, powerful instrumentation. Matt Berninger is a story-teller, a scene-setter, capable of writing beautiful songs about the little details in addition to standard song fodder.

It was a love-fest from start to finish. The band was jubilant, and even the most mope-inducing songs were played with an air of celebration. Thank-you’s were said after nearly every song, and occasional spates of endearing banter peppered the set. Naturally, the band/venue name thing came up, and Berninger jokingly said how nice it was to have the venue named after them.

High points abounded, from the deafening clap-along to Bryan Devendorf’s pounding opening drums in “Squalor Victoria” to the introduction of “Abel” as “not religious” and Berninger’s intensity therein while shouting “my mind’s not right,” to the dedication of one of my absolute favorites, the hypnotic “Wasp Nest,” to Mama Dessner. The whole show was breathtaking. Many of the songs were given the extended instrumental treatment, featuring various solos and played long past their original stopping points. At the end of “Ada,” one of my favorites from latest album Boxer, someone yelled “amazing,” and the band collectively blushed. Adding to their nice-guy mystique, “Daughters of the Soho Riots” was dedicated to opening band Centro-Matic. “Mistaken for Strangers” was one of the strongest songs of the night, ferocious from start to finish. And to my amazement, the crowd sang along to “Fake Empire,” the final song of the set. It was the perfect way to close, but the crowd wasn’t going anywhere.

Happily, neither was the band. Mere moments later they were back, greeted by a roar from a still-jammed venue. Berninger opened by telling a story about the R.E.M. tour, and how they longed to play encores but weren’t able to. The crew cleared their stuff as soon as they went off stage. Of the trio of songs in the first encore, “All the Wine” was the most impressive to me. I’ve heard it live before, but they absolutely killed it this time. “Mr. November” was dedicated to “Barack,” and I began to think of the song in a whole new way, since I’d never before thought of it as being remotely political. The song itself was a raucous racket, just the way it ought to be.

You might have thought that would be it, another great song to close out their show. But no. The masses weren’t going anywhere, and so the band came back once more. They launched into the lovely, not oft-played “You’ve Done it Again, Virginia,” which I had never heard before. But the piece de resistance came next, their nineteenth and final song of the night. It’s in my top five National songs, and I didn’t expect to hear it. It caught my off guard. “About Today” was so beautiful, it almost made me cry.

I’ve gotta say, if it hadn’t been for that little thing in California I went to earlier, this would be my show of the year. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve been to a show where the air was as electric, and the love between audience and band so obvious. Matt Berninger said it was going to “suck to go play other venues after this,” and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to see a show there without remembering this one. As the theme from “Rocky” played, we all emptied out onto Broad Street, and I fell a little bit more in love with a band I thought I couldn’t possibly love any more.

Set List:

Start a War
Brainy
Secret Meeting
Baby, We’ll Be Fine
Slow Show
Squalor Victoria
Racing Like a Pro
Abel
Wasp Nest
Ada
Apartment Story
Daughters of the Soho Riots
Mistaken for Strangers
Fake Empire
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Green Gloves
All the Wine
Mr. November
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You’ve Done it Again, Virginia
About Today

[photo by Megan Petty – from 2006 Black Cat show]

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