The National and Owen Pallett
Oct. 16, 2010
The Fox Pomona Theater
The show: Telling twins apart when they repeatedly switch positions on stage is hard, so I can only attribute this quote to one of the National's two Dessner brothers: “We used to be dark.”
Coming from the National, that's a hilarious statement.
The band's sixth full-length, High Violet, is as dreary as anything they've done, packed with minor chords and lyrics about early-mid-life hopelessness. Singer Matt Beringer last night came out in his traditional black blazer, but he also paired it with a black shirt and pants, as if to play the part of scruffy mortician.
But the Dessner who introduced “Available,”–a back-catalog blast of vindictiveness that climaxes with the excellent maybe-break-up statement, “You just made yourself available”–hit on something correct. The anguish in the National's music is simply nowhere to be found in the concert conduct of the band anymore. Instead, the group's members are downright perky. Last night was the final one of their recent U.S. tour, and so maybe it was the occasion, but the guys acted more stand-up comedians than moody indie balladeers. Beringer joked about the last time he jogged being 1977. Aaron Dessner kicked off “Abel” by yelping, “To the Bible!” “England” came dedicated to Kuala Lumpur. And so on.
It's an endearing act, and it's hard to begrudge the band for having fun while delivering a mostly impeccable set. But having seen them a few times since the 2007 release of Boxer, I left the show feeling a little let down. There was a time when it seemed like Beringer was reliving each torturous emotion he sang about on stage. Last night, though, the band seemed to be running a victory lap: They delivered the hits in the impressive, slow-cresting way they've delivered them scores of times, but didn't give themselves over to their own sad-sack shtick. When Beringer screamed for “Mr. November,” he seemed to do it through a smile. When he waded into the audience on “Terrible Love”–all the way to the second tier of floor space–he sent the crowd wild but seemed utterly calm himself.
The high-point came at the end, when the National did something very un-National-like. They unplugged. The group is famously fussy when it comes to their arrangements, and each successive record release has been more ornate than the last. But for “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” there was no amplification, no electricity and no effects. Instead, we got nine people on stage (including the excellent opener Owen Pallett on his violin) softly throwing sounds into the theater and getting a choir-voiced audience singalong back. It was one of the few moments of the night where the music seemed to match up with the band's easy-going mood, and the result was a kind of unforced communion between audience and performer. Not dark, just nice.
Personal bias: The National is the best new band of the past decade. This isn't bias, it's fact.
The crowd: More males than females, but not to the extent that was once the case with this band.
Overheard in the crowd: “I love all indie music.” (?!?)
Notebook dump: I've never gotten into Owen Pallett (the artist formerly known as Final Fantasy), but his opening set was a charmer. First few songs were just Pallett on violin, keys and loop pedals, but the songs were full-fleshed. Then a guitarist/bassist came out and… well, the music sounded the same. But it was good.
Mistaken for Strangers
Cardinal Song (just the final verses)
Daughters of the Soho Riots
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks