After the crew finished preparing the stage for the National’s set at the Riviera this Sunday, a WXRT rep hopped into the spotlight to introduce the band. “This concert has been sold out for weeks and weeks and weeks. Lately, a bunch of great shows haven’t been selling out at all — but you know how great these guys are live.”
And yes, they are great live, but this starts at the songwriting. Something I had taken for granted about the group before tonight was that they’ve done an excellent job of writing music that seems intimate streaming through headphones but bombastic when played in a concert hall. The National display a noteworthy ability to scale up their music — even the slower end of their repertoire.
Take “Runaway,” the set’s opener. Of all the songs on High Violet, that track seems hardly fitting to begin a show, but it actually made sense. With the acoustic balance tipped more heavily toward bass and rhythm (as it was at the Riviera), the ballad-paced “Runaway” works as a builder. By the time we hit “Mistaken for Strangers,” the show was off and running.
An hour before all of this, the prodigious Owen Pallett (more widely-known by his former pseudonym Final Fantasy) warmed the stage. As Pallett has arranged and performed with the Arcade Fire, it should have come as no surprise that he put on the most lushly-orchestrated two-man show I’ve yet seen. The violin is a versatile instrument, and Pallett managed to both eke surprising sounds out of his strings and to weave them together into masterful, progressive constructions with the help of a loop pedal.
The National act as Pallett’s opposite. While the opener featured two people onstage, the headliner brought on as many as nine. Pallett is a technical wizard making good use of a host of clever tricks. The National by contrast seem to operate with a very standard methodology. In fact, If pressed to describe the National’s “sound” (within the loose bounds of the “indie rock” descriptor), I would struggle to find an adjective that really conjures a tangible image or distinguishes them usefully from their contemporaries. Perhaps their only truly distinctive sonic feature, at least at first glance, is lead singer Matt Berninger’s low growl.
No, the National are in a class of their own simply because they do what they do very well. They’re versatile without gimmickry. Their songs consist of very pointed instrumentation supporting very pointed situational lyrics, the overall effect being that they just seem to nail whatever emotional cocktail they’re going for. This is why nine people were needed onstage Sunday night, including a trumpeter and a trombonist. In turn, the force of the band in full attendance makes the aforementioned scale-up all the more impressive. The simple (e.g. “Sorrow“) becomes grandiose with such instrumentation and altered balance; the grandiose (“England,” “Fake Empire“) positively soars.
And in the middle of it all was Berninger, whose stage manner remains in keeping with his enigmatic image. During the early stages of the show, he seemed very much as paranoid as the lyrics he’s penned, appearing isolated in his own onstage microcosm while the band exploded around him. Only a voice as gravelly as his could allow continuity between an on-point vocal performance and motions that suggest a man who’s recently been startled awake from a daydream. This effect was compounded when he pulled out some of the deranged screams characteristic of their earlier work. “You know I keep your fingerprints / in a pink folder in the middle of my table / You’re the tall kingdom I surround / Think I’d better follow you around” (“Brainy,” from Boxer, 2007) — the man who wrote these lyrics couldn’t possibly be well-adjusted. Could he?
Yet as the concert progressed, the baritone revealed his command of the audience. A better showman than I’d given him credit for, he eventually began to banter with his bandmates, then the crowd. The initial stiff moments began to look more like a put-on. Far from shutting out the audience, by the second half of the show the smartly-dressed Berninger began to seem most at ease at its helm. “These are just choreographed moments of awkward silence,” he told us during a lull before “Slow Show.” By the time when, five songs later, he clinked his red Solo cup against the microphone, we’d begun to believe it.
At the end of the encore, which found him striding through the crowd during the meteoric crescendo of “Terrible Love,” we were every one of us convinced.