the national [2010]

Fox Theater
Oakland, CA
27 May 2010

The first time didn’t count. It was at the Greek Theater. The Greek Theater, for God’s sake. Huge, open, daytime bright. The National do not belong there. They belong in near darkness, in and out of flickering shadow. They belong in small, intimate spaces filled with bodies anticipating musical rapture. Sure, The Fox is not anywhere close to intimate, but at least it’s dark.

This is the part where I normally try to describe the band’s recorded music, the studio sound they create and how it affects me. But there’s no way I could do so any better than my friend Kim recently did:

“I think what The National does is make you feel at once hopeful and sad. It’s like there is something in their music that makes me feel like there is something so great to look forward to, that the now is laced with a sadness of not being there yet.”

“I used to be a Nancy Drew hound. In one book, Nancy is in a ‘haunted’ house and the discovery is that the haunted feeling comes from the culprit playing an unhearably low note on an organ that blasts throughout the house. No one knows they are hearing anything, but it makes people feel fear. I think The National has a chord of sad in there, that just hits. It isn’t really sad, but it’s something in that family.”

And so there I was, at The Fox, ready to experience The National, not necessarily in an ideal venue, but at least one more fitting than The Greek. I was ready for the hidden chord. I was ready for the sadness of the now.

What I discovered immediately was the true secret of The Fox: stand two feet away from the stage. Sure, those audio geeks are absolutely right: the acoustics suffer, but it is entirely worth it. There is no better way to experience a band at such a large venue.

So there we were, my National-introducing die-hard fan friend, and I, having looked forward to the show for literally months, standing dead center, looking up at darkness, seconds away from The National set. But before the band took the stage, we were treated to the most amazingly simple and elegant lighting I’ve ever seen at a show. It began with a stunning blue/green rectangle that framed the stage and transitioned simply and beautifully through a subtle sequence for the entire set. It was remarkable.

And then the actual music began.

It took about three notes for my Greek Theater experience to fall away from my memory forever. I could not have hoped for more. I literally said this to my friend. The National know how to put on a show. There is dapper attire. There is a deep, dark sensual energy that vibrates through the band, stage and audience. There is sincere emotion.

Matt Berninger, vocalist and songwriter, is a force. Slight frame. Commanding presence. It is difficult to look elsewhere for long. He stumbles about with heavy steps and an unbreakable gaze. And this is before he starts drinking seriously. According to guitarist Aaron Dessner, it is now tradition for Berninger to single-handedly consume a bottle of wine during a set. And tonight was no different.

Yet it seems very important to dispel any notions of an out-of-control drunk flailing about (that was unfortunately the kid in front of us). Yes, Berninger did get more and more…rambunctious as the night wore on (even venturing mic-cord and all into the crowd at one point, crossing the entire width of The Fox), but the music never suffered, nor did he ever seem to become anything other than what he already is.

What he is, is a very vulnerable man. The aforementioned slight frame for one. But more telling are his hands. They did not grip the mic stand for the entire show like those of most pure (non-instrumental) vocalists. They held each other, they pounded against one another, they touched awkwardly. They demonstrated a vulnerability that was both powerful and endearing.

I’m sorry. The music. I was going to talk about the music.

My friend Kim is absolutely right: there is both hope and sadness in The National’s music and that is exactly what their live show is like. But there is an energy in their live performance that, with a few exceptions, somehow brought even more color and richness to their music.

“Bloodbuzz Ohio”, from their latest, High Violet, is a song I’ve enjoyed from the first listen, but never really loved. Live, it was almost an entirely different song. Aaron and Bryce Dessner, the twin guitarists flanked Berninger for most of the night, but for “Bloodbuzz”, they stepped forward to the very edge of the stage near the song’s end and tore into their instruments with a ferocity that was breathtaking. I can no longer listen to the recording without feeling this.

“Slow Show” (from Boxer), was another highlight. The ending, with its unforgettable repeated lyric: “You know I dreamed about you / 29 years before I saw you / You know I dreamed about you / I missed you for 29 years” was just plain amazing. The words fell like a mantra, holding the theater and crowd under their spell, enraptured.

Ironically, my two favorite songs from High Violet “Sorrow” and “Runaway” were the least effective of the entire set. The quiet intensity of both recorded versions that drew me in to listening to them countless times over the past month was missing live. Bryan Devendorf’s drums that drive “Sorrow” were entirely too subdued, as was the simple two-note keyboard line. The trumpet and trombone of “Runaway” that make the song were nowhere near as powerful.

But in the context of such a brilliant show, these shortcomings seemed trivial. The night finished as it apparently has finished for some time now, with a looser, spread out version of “About Today” (a very similar rendition of which is included on the Virginia EP). Much more methodically-paced in the recorded version, live, it’s drawn out, the words as isolated as the song’s subjects. The effect is haunting.

Remarkably, there was no real middle to this show. It began and it ended and there was no between: no time to get a drink, check the time, or think about anything but the music on the stage. It was one constant chord of hope, of sadness, of wonder. Despite my hyperbolic predilections I don’t think I’ve ever said this about a show before: it truly was a masterpiece.