The National didn't sell out this gig at 9:30 Club immediately or even within a couple of days or weeks of the sale date. But the show did sell out, and if the band keeps making music as it has the past few years -- and if it keeps playing shows like this -- you'll have to be quick to buy tickets next time it plays 9:30 Club, if the venue is still big enough to hold the group. Obviously, plenty of people are keen to The National, and with this performance, as well as its last two albums, many, many more are going to find out about 'em.
The quintet is essentially a sextet these days, with tour ringer Padma Newsome along to enhance the music with keys and violin, an almost necessary move to really bring forth the chamber pop part of its sound -- bass, drums and two guitars probably can't capture most of the band's recent songs in a live setting -- and the strings were crucial for opening song "Start a War" from the new album, "Boxer." The album title initially conjures images of machismo and aggression, but "Start a War," like most songs on the album, is more of a lament. A threat is passed -- "Walk away now, and you're gonna start a war" -- but the mellow music, building to a crescendo on the strength of insistent rhythm, conveys the dark depression of a breakup. Newsome switched to keys for the next song, "Mistaken for Strangers," and the tempo started to pick up, approaching full strength on "Slow Show," an everyday love song about the cute rituals of coupledom that closes with the super-romantic repeated line, "You know I dreamed about you 29 years before I saw you." A cliché, maybe, but it works and it's an identifiable sentiment. And a disguised power in the music was unmasked live. The National tends to brood instead of rock, but its nervous energy was unleashed on stage, even if it was frequently teased back with sweet treats.
Prior to "Slow Show," singer Matt Berninger acknowledged NPR, which was broadcasting the show, and joked about keeping the language clean, even playing at being unable to remember the lyrics from "Mr. November." It was somewhat odd to see an "indie" band with a dedicated singer not strumming a guitar or pounding at keys. Usually such lead singers are left to hardcore bands -- some manic, tattooed punk thrashing around and screaming unintelligible lyrics -- and Top 40 pop rock, but Berninger's deep, deadpanning vocals are crucial to this band's sound and success. Again, The National isn't long for the indie circuit, and Berninger's heartthrobby voice makes the ladies swoon to the romantic vulgarities it projects.
After "Slow Show," songs from 2005's "Alligator" were sprinkled into the set. It almost entirely leaned on the last two albums for this set, which wasn't surprising. Almost gone from the band's sound is the alt-country Americana from the first two full lengths. The chamber pop remains strong, but the post-punk sounds of the Joy Division vein are stronger, now, the guitars more angled, and the dominant, metronomic drumming of Bryan Devendorf takes center stage, not only guiding the music but leading it. "Boxer" confirms what "Alligator" claimed: The National has honed in on its sound and is ready to take it to the masses.
On "Baby, We'll Be Fine," the group built back up to rock -- even Newsome turned his violin under his arm to strum it like a third guitar as the song raced to a close -- and the rock continued on "Lit Up." That heavier sound is the one thing the last two albums could use a little more of, but in the live set, The National seems to recognize those few songs' necessity and puts them in the show. Still, the band's really about sad beauty and more subtle dynamics, and late in the set it strung together that argument with the stunning "Daughters of the Soho Riots," the beautiful story-song "Ada" and the haunting "Fake Empire." The latter establishes a lonely midnight mood, an alone in a relationship feel, with its opening piano chords but builds up to a celebration as the keys are again abandoned for the violin.
Heavier up tempo songs are the general standard for rock show closers, but some bands will opt to leave the crowd heavy-hearted with a more reserved beauty. The National, with so many hushed anthems, could easily fall to the latter, but in contrast to its general style, the band opted instead for one of its few rockers, ending the set on "Mr. November." The song conveys a glory days sentiment but one without the playful music of Springsteen and with much more regret. Berninger's performance well represented the unleashed energy of the show, as he barked the potty-mouthed chorus, and the band exited the stage with the crowd amped. When The National returned, it reverted to its darker, mellow side again with "Green Gloves," sticks replaced with hushed percussion. Cries for "All the Wine," followed, but you just knew "Abel" was coming next. As the hottest single from "Alligator" and the group's most competent and immediate rock and roll song, it had to take a turn. "About Today," the only pre-"Alligator" song of the set, offered both sounds, bipolar disorder for the ears. It started moody, brooding and calm, but built up again into a rock and roll swell of heavy strumming, creating a near-white-noise wall of sound, again leaving the audience in a heightened state of excitement.
British Columbia's Shapes and Sizes was an odd choice for this bill, and a gabby audience supported this theory. For moments of most songs, the quartet would play something akin to mid-'90s college rock, but it quickly offset that with quirky, experimental song structures and goofball timing. The band takes the listener on an unpredictable journey but is incredibly engaging along the way. The set was terrific, only not loud enough. Louder would have helped the rock and covered up the chit chat.
The mood Talkdemonic established fit The National better. Its blend of hip hop, folk and electronica was darker than Shapes and Sizes -- though almost as quirky -- and moody and hypnotic. Some disjointed moments keep the listener from falling into a trance.
Start a War
Mistaken For Strangers
Baby, We'll Be Fine
Racing Like a Pro
Daughters of the Soho Riots