By David Courtright
For one who has never seen a band like The National live, the pre-show speculation can be vast and sundry. How can a band who makes music like they do pull it off live? What works with their sound is their slow, pleading malaise. They craft slow-burn songs out of a deep and subdued frustration with the status quo and patterns of everyday life. I was surprised, and to be honest, a bit let down when everyone stood up at the Fox Theatre at the beginning of the show. This is a sit down band – as they should be.
Owen Pallett, the virtuoso loop-violinist and composer, was the opener. Unfortunately for me he is a very punctual person and I am not, and I missed his set. When the lights went down for The National, the white draped curtain behind the stage glowed and hummed with a pale violet light. Fitting, as the band’s most recent album is called High Violet. For a while, as we waited in that dusky space before the band came out, clouds moving across the ceiling of the theater, “On The Beach” by Neil Young played over the PA system. Quite the tone setter: “The world is turning/I hope it don’t turn away.” Other than showing their love for Neil, it was hard to locate the motivation behind this. It set the tone for the entire evening, and to be honest, that fragment of song upstaged The National’s entire performance.
One of the most beautiful and striking things about The National is their ability to create a very smooth, textured, and full-bodied style of music while lyrically remaining steeped in fatalism. “There’s no saving anything/I’ll swallow the shine of the sun” opened their first song, “The Runaway.” As they do on the records, the songs ambled through landscapes of subversive angst, a trembling violence just beneath the surface. “Mistaken For Strangers,” a favorite off Boxer, was given much more boisterous treatment live. There were moments in the set when the band showed too much vigor for songs that deserve to be whispered. The National as an environment is one of deep hues and thick shadows, and live they push towards rock ‘n’ roll. On one hand, it gives some songs a certain punch that is unexpected and interesting. On the other, some songs become distorted, with singer Matt Berninger screeching out lyrics that, on the album, are sung in his buttery baritone.
As a lighthearted contrast to the weight of their songs, the on-stage banter at times was pretty amusing. Berninger asked, “Who put this set list together? Even I’m getting depressed,” to which guitar player Aaron Dessner said, “Well, you slept ‘til two, then started drinking, so we had to go ahead and do it.” It was nice to break up the heavier songs with some comedy, though some comments seemed to hit a bit close to the bone. An enjoyable show, though The National should stick to what they are best at, which is the slow, immediate style of music they craft their albums around.