2010 / Live Reviews / Music

Concert Review: The National Rocks For Obama, Claims Spotlight

Brooklyn Rock Group Plays At Presidential Rally

MADISON, Wis. — You wouldn’t think shyness would be a big problem for a rock band like the National playing among a rainbow of spotlights before a nearly sold-out crowd.

Photo: 4AD

Photo: 4AD

But despite the illogic of it all, the Brooklyn-based, indie-rock quintet is one of those acts who seem intent on inching backwards into greatness instead of laying claim to their rock-star dreams with Steven Tyler-like bravado. Their music and image is an endearing and sometimes intoxicating mixture of contradictory impulses. The band members’ slightly awkward stage presence — not to mention the darkly moody songs — stamps down on the ambition and anthemic quality inherent in their sound. It’s a reluctance that draws listeners in.

Testifying to this was the band’s show on Tuesday night at the Orpheum Theatre, during which the group swiftly barreled through a beautifully brooding set that validated their bid for greater prominence on the tour circuit. The group’s best song might be called “Mistaken For Strangers,” but these well-dressed wallflowers aren’t destined to remain overlooked for much longer.

Hints of what’s likely to come for this combo came earlier in the day. While the National headlined their evening show, the band had served as a warm-up act of sorts for President Barack Obama at a campaign rally at the nearby University of Wisconsin-Madison campus only hours earlier. Although jam-band-scene icon Ben Harper’s abbreviated set seemed tailored to appeal to hippie stereotypes about Madison, the National’s inclusion was a surprising vote of confidence in the five-piece’s growing resonance. As a result, solo Harper couldn’t outshine the unplugged band’s fuming emotional intensity.

As for the band members, they seem bemused by their brush with Obama, the ultimate political rock star. At the Orpheum show, they joked about meeting him and exchanging abbreviated pleasantries. “You rocked it, sir,” their drummer purportedly wanted to respond to him to much chuckling all around.

When it was the National’s turn to sway the audience later in the night, however, they followed the president’s lead. They played to their strengths and rallied their base with near-perfect renditions of their greatest hits. They might not be slick performers, but they’ve already mastered tugging at their audience’s heartstrings with music both elegant and patient.

The group’s capabilities were apparent from the opening song, “Runaway,” during which the musicians eased the tightly packed audience into their afterhours world. Piano twiddling, guitar notes that rung like church bells and moans from the band’s hired horn section created a rich melody for singer Matt Berninger to mutter with sadness on the push and pull of relationship. When it was over, the clouds from the smoke machines that threatened to obscure the band were more than theatrics. These guys were ready to catch fire.

Many credit Berninger for much of the group’s rep as creatures of smoldering, literary intensity. And surely, his smoky baritone and Hemingway poetics are the narration of nighttime carousing in dive bars. But, his companions share his oddly charismatic reticence and contribute to the overall vision. Shimmering guitars, plunking bass and lovely ringlets of piano are beautifully assuming as individual components, but together, form a rocking piece of orchestration. Forgoing bar-band schlock, the National are the group the Hold Steady wish they could be.

In search of a fault in the performance it might have been how the band packed most of their best songs in the beginning of the concert. Even though hard-charging cuts like “Anyone’s Ghost,” “Mistaken For Strangers” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” lacked the roundhouse rhythmic kick of their records, the band’s sound still came across like steamroller. The band’s frontline of Berninger and the guitar-playing Dessner brothers kept still except for when the song’s dynamics compelled them to take up a new position. Berninger clutched the microphone and let his croon morph into a raspy howl while the Dessners contorted so they could trill their guitar strings or yank more mellow feedback from their instruments and amps. As it turned out, the strategy for turning out the big hitters early in the concert was to win listeners’ confidence. By the climax of “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” Berninger had the audience moaning along.

This also ensured the band a degree of latitude as it introduced more explicitly romantic numbers. “Slow Show” thumped with a Motown-like pop structure that repeatedly cycled into an excellent breakdown of elegant piano and stabbing drumbeats that recalled the late ’70s work of Bruce Springsteen. “You know I dreamed about you/For 29 years before I saw you,” Berninger murmured, but he didn’t need to be bashful. When the music dipped out, the audience clapped along in time.

The clapping propelled the band into the squall of sound that opens “Squalor Victoria.” When the haze faded back, the song’s primary piano refrain was a cryptic score to an Alfred Hitchcock mystery. Adding to the mystery was the other musicians, who pitched in angular sounds from their instruments, recalling a Velvet Underground collage than a bunch of cheap chord changes. As the intensity bullied forward, the song culminated with Berninger doubled over and shouting song’s title as the drums rolled and the horn section softly brayed.

The sound of the collective unit continually showed its tightness and their sensitivities to each other. If all the low-fi dynamics of the National’s records were dulled by playing loud in the gorgeously eroding theater, the linkages remained and the sounds lined together in new and interesting ways. Live, “Terrible Love” wasn’t the torrent of noise rock that exists on vinyl. Rather, the collision of guitars and cooing vocals were a bewildering melody that overwhelmed the senses. It built up in the most terrifically agonizing way before fading slowly into the audience’s cheers.

No matter their low-key attitude to fame, there was no way for the band to escape the acclaim they received. Leading a loose, beer-drinking-style singalong on “Vanderlyle,” Berninger gave a message to all: “I’ll explain everything to the geeks,” he repeatedly hollered. But the group and its fans now know he doesn’t need to. They already know. This band has arrived and while they might not share Obama’s onstage charisma, they have the music capable of winning hearts and minds instead of votes.

Remaining Tour Dates:

  • Saturday, Oct. 2, Indianapolis
  • Sunday, Oct. 3, Nashville
  • Monday, Oct. 4, Raleigh, N.C.
  • Tuesday, Oct. 5, Atlanta
  • Wednesday, Oct. 6, Orlando, Fla.
  • Friday, Oct. 8, Houston
  • Saturday, Oct. 9, Dallas
  • Sunday and Monday, Oct. 10-11, Austin, Texas
  • Wednesday, Oct. 13, Tucson, Ariz.
  • Thursday, Oct. 14, Tempe, Ariz.
  • Saturday, Oct. 16, Pomona, Calif.
  • Sunday, Oct. 17, San Francisco
  • Monday, Oct. 18, Denver

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2010 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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