|Photo credit: Keith Klenowski|
No Getting Over The National
The National at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, May 21, 2010.
By Phil Gallo
It’s not a stretch to say that no indie rock band in the country is hotter right now than the National. They have sold out nearly every U.S. date on a 56-show trek that has them bouncing between North America and Europe between May and Dec. 1. Their fifth album, High Violet, is their first to chart higher than No. 68, opening at No. 3 by selling 51,000 copies in its first week. And the New York Times Magazine, which only occasionally features musicians, touted them as a band with “powerful, probing feeling for the inner lives of average people out in the American heartland.” (Though associated with Brooklyn, N.Y., where they are now based, they hail from Cincinnati and sound like guys who listened to a lot of Joy Division, Smiths and Echo & the Bunnymen while growing up).
Onstage at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles for the first of two sold-out shows on Friday night, the National took the bold step of relying heavily on material from the new album despite it being available for less than two weeks. They opened with “Mistaken for Strangers,” a typical mid-tempo number from their breakthrough album Boxer, and then dove into the new album for four of the next five songs.
It sent a signal that the band has scrapped its country-pop roots to focus on the more atmospheric sound of High Violet and Boxer. Material from those two albums emphasizes a wall of sound approach, often with shimmering guitars at the center and occasional keyboards enhancing the body of the sound. The guitarists — brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner — change instruments often, but play through the same amps; it plays a considerable role in the density they create, masking whatever singular qualities they bring as players to the overall sound. It makes the National’s music more communal than most indie rockers, and by creating a set that’s 80 percent filled with music from the last three years, there’s a cohesion as they move from one song to the next.
After the guitar, the violin plays an important textural role in their music. “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” a ballad from High Violet, became the evening’s most emotionally revealing work, the pairing of violin and bowed guitar providing the accompaniment of musical tears. It was the rare tune to suggest sweetness alongside despair; generally, the National prefer to keep rougher edges when playing live. Even at the start of the tour, they have explored how best to recreate a new song live, swapping out instruments after each tune. One interesting setup — one guitar and two basses — was used for just a single song, “Afraid of Everyone;” a horn section of trombone and trumpet was also brought in to add to the low, sustained frequencies.
All of this music — 20 songs (10 from High Violet) performed over the course of an hour and 40 minutes — was played in near darkness. They backlit the stage with dark hues, blue and green most often, and generally gave the viewer little to look at. The entire quintet, even singer Matt Berninger, performed the bulk of the material nearly motionless, which had a two-fold effect. One, it created a palpable tension that elevated the attraction of the music, and two, it kept the focus on the National as a band making singular, communal rock music. Drummer Bryan Devendorf is such a fine timekeeper, though, it was hard to not watch him work, as he supplied an aggressive beat that bordered on the mechanical.
That took nothing away from Berninger, who sang with the calmness of a folk balladeer. The timbre of his natural baritone is similar to Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples, though the shift in his delivery can be quite dramatic, from the suave to the frantic.
One line, from the new song “Sorrow,” stood out Friday: “I don’t want to get over you,” a sentiment that informs so much of the National’s milieu. They accept people’s personal baggage and the damage done to the soul, and figure out a way to plow through. It comes, one supposes, from their youth in Cincinnati, that odd corner of southern Ohio that abuts Kentucky and tries to balance a midwestern factory town with southern ideology. You don’t get that sort of attitude in Brooklyn, the New York borough associated with underdogs and underachievers for decades before becoming a hipster haven.
The biggest surprise of the show came during the four-song encore (three of the encore tunes appear on High Violet) when Berninger grabbed his microphone and wandered into the crowd with his mic cord trailing him. Considering the stillness with which he approaches most songs, it came as a shock. It did, however, play to the indie rock credo that all of us — performer and audience — are part of a collective.