Over The Weekend: The National at the Wiltern

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Andrew Youssef
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The Hype: Who doesn't love the National? Everyone got a little weepy and emotional when news broke that the band was working on its fifth release. High Violet came out this month, and while it's much more of a grower than 2007's Boxer, the fact that Matt Berninger & co. were doing a supporting tour was enough cause for celebration. We caught one of two-sold out shows on Saturday.
The Show: Can a show be over-hyped as it's happening? As the opening notes of their first song, "Start A War" came on, the raucous applause made it evident that everyone in the audience seemed really, really excited to be watching the band.
With the band drawing their set list from both Boxer and High Violet, cheers and whistles punctuated every song rendition, every curse word Berninger spat into the mic, every song climax's rise and fall. It was especially disconcerting to see audience members sing along to every brooding lyric that lead singer Berninger droned out. (The couple behind me was literally gushing so hard, and thought every songs was "amazing" and "incredible" I thought they were going to explode by the time the concert was over.)
Still, it was a treat to see two horn players and a violinist complete the band's already dynamic, live sound. The National mixed it up; they arranged various songs differently, moved through different tempos. "Mistaken For Strangers," for example was composed of various breaks and ended subtly, with a soft sputter.  In "Slow Show," the band made use of a quieter, ominous beginning, then opened the songs into a magnificent chorus and exited with a wild climax.
It was interesting to hear the juxtaposition of old and new songs together in one set and see how High Violet songs held up live. I used to thing that "Blood Buzz Ohio" and "Afraid of Everyone" weren't as concise as "Green Gloves" or "Squalor Victoria," but I was wrong. They just needed to grow on me.
I've seen the National live before, and I'd always thought that Berninger's pained, emotional performances (screaming into the mic, hunkering down and clapping to himself, staggering around the stage like a drunk) was sincere. At this show, it seemed like a calculated act, trotted out to make audiences react. The band played hard as well--21 songs in total. In the end, although it wasn't the best I'd seen of the National, I was not unsatisfied.

The Verdict:
I suppose that's what the National does best, after all. The band is able to reach out to their audiences because the cool kids never expect an act from the National. Their dark, brooding music is the stuff that you listen to alone, when you're sad or want to just be in  your head. It's the soundtrack of your bedroom late at night, of silence and tears. Which is why at the National shows, everyone in the audience is so willing to be emotionally raw. They're unabashed fans; they want to fall in love, have babies and absorb everything the band has to give.
My boyfriend, a musician who reviews guitars for a living, rolls his eyes everytime we watch bands that don't do odd-time changes. I told him, "You can't like only technically proficient bands. You have to like emotionally proficient bands, too." The National is an emotionally proficient band. Just ask the couple behind me.

The Set List:
1. Start A War
2. Mistaken For Strangers
3. Anyone's Ghost
4. Blood Buzz Ohio
5. Afraid of Everyone
6. Brainy
7. Baby We'll Be Fine
8. Slow Show
9. Squalor Victoria
10. Little Faith
11. Conversation 16
12. Apartment Story
13. Green Gloves
14. Abel 
15. Sorrow
16. England 
17. Fake Empire 
-encore-
1. Runaway
 2. Lemonworld
3. Mr. November
4. Terrible Love

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