Thursday, October 14, 2010

My Mind's Not Right

[The National + Owen Pallet @ the Rialto, Tucson 10/13/10]

Matt Berninger is pacing the middle of the stage, now to the drum set, now a halting step or two to the left, then back to the right. He's lightly pounding his knuckles together, and there's a slight grimace on his face.

Bryan Devendorf is working the drums in his distinct way, and the Dessner brothers are shredding. Scott Devendorf, the two guys on horns, and the guy on keyboard add to the melee. It's loud, and Matt seems not to know what to do. Then steps quickly to the mike stand, grabs it, and screams--just screams--"Squalor Victoria!" then he's in front of the monitors at the edge of the crowd, and he screams, "Squalor Victoria!" and then he's standing on an amp, screaming, "Squalor Victoria!" and back to the stage. You can't actually tell what he's saying, because it's more of a unintelligible screech.

It's electrifying and honestly a bit uncomfortable, this smooth-voiced man in a three-piece suit almost unhinged, and we're screaming.


A word about Owen Pallett: he rocks. A second, all-purpose fellow played percussion, guitar, and bass along with him. Owen did some drumming of his own on his violin. Through the violin mike his strumming thumbs created a surprisingly deep thump. During one song he would pull away from his main mike and shout into the violin mike. It sounded as though he were shouting at a distance yet remaining perfectly audible.


Even though the Devendorf brothers are an integral part of what the National does--even though Bryan's drumming provides the most distinctive layer of what the National does (Berninger's baritone aside), it's very clear that the Dessner brothers and Berninger are the heart of the band. There are three mike stands at the front of the stage. Everyone else recedes into the background, the Devendorfs almost relegated to "traveling band" status.

Matt Berninger is a little odd. He still seems uncomfortable when not singing (similar to Hamilton Leithauser from the Walkmen, except Berninger does more pacing). He's pretty funny too. (Matt: "It's getting kind of warm in here." Crowd: "Take off your vest! . . . take off your shirt!" Matt: "I have six nipples." ...awkward banter ensues... Aaron Dessner tries to start the next song. Matt: "I'm just kidding. I only have one nipple.")

The Dessners know they are rock stars now. Bryce was the first one to step in front of the monitors for a guitar solo, but Aaron would soon follow. These two clearly direct the show, taking their cues from each other while everyone else follows. There were moments when they seemed to be going through the rock-star motions a tad bit, but then the motions were pretty sweet. Bryce in particular is a sick guitarist.

There's this received wisdom that "The National Are Not a Good Live Band."  I was a little apprehensive beforehand, having heard this batted around for quite a while. It's not true. I think it comes from two things. First, Matt Berninger has always had a distinctive voice, but it didn't used to actually be very good. In a live setting that was likely amplified. Except that's no longer true. His voice is a weapon. Mostly his gorgeous baritone floats along, velvet. And his shouting is, as I say, jolts of electricity.

The second reason comes from expectations. People know they are going to a show by the National, and yet they expect to see Keith Richards or Wayne Coyne. It's the National, guys. Expect a lot of pretty, very grandiose songs done with intensity. Expect a handful of shredding rock songs.


I was at the show with my dad. We had lots of fun.

The National played almost exclusively tracks from High Violet and Boxer.

They opened with a lovely rendition of 'Runaway,' then dedicated the second song to Hotel Congress, where they stayed. Hotel Congress is haunted, they say, and naturally they played (an especially haunting version of) 'Anyone's Ghost.' They played only one track from the pre-Alligator years: the rocker 'Available.' Matt slid around the floor, singing and screaming. Their wildest song, 'Abel,' made the cut from Alligator, and it was indeed wild.

The set was about two hours long, and they covered most of High Violet ('England,' 'Afraid of Everyone,' 'Bloodbuzz Ohio,' 'Conversation 16') and a lot of Boxer (aforementioned 'Squalor Victoria,' 'Mistaken for Strangers' which was, of course, awesome, 'Green Gloves,' 'Slow Show,' 'Apartment Story').

'Fake Empire' was the pre-encore finale. They revved up the latter portion quite a few notches. The crowd dug it.

The encore was the best part of the show, for sure. After a quiet rendition of 'Start a War', they pounded out a blistering 'Mr. November' ("This is for John Kerry. . . we just ruined this song for half of you, didn't we?"). Blistering. And then they played 'Terrible Love.' Matt hopped into the crowd ("It's quite a company") and paced the length of the floor, from the middle, to the walls, and all four corners of the venue. Toward the end of the song he was singing right in the middle, house lights up, gazing up at the balcony. It was quite a company.

They closed with an affecting, mostly acoustic version of 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.' We sang along, and were dead quiet when not singing. The applause and shouts and whistles continued right into the house music.