the El Rey Theater – Los Angeles
The Art Deco grandeur of Los Angeles’s El Rey theater seemed a fitting venue for The National’s late night tales. From the ceiling of the 1930’s era theater hung several massive, dimly lit chandeliers and a classic curtain that was draped over the stage between acts. Though lacking an appropriate haze of smoke, the ornate mood of the venue felt right in the context of the National’s brooding music.
When the curtains parted, the band took to the stage and began the slow burner “Start A War.” Lead singer Matt Berninger sang in his particular baritone, leaning into the mike stand with eyes closed, bathed in the blue and white lights of the stage. His body language conveyed the feeling that he was trying to forget that the audience was there and focus on the meaning of each word he sung. The song’s simple lyrics repeated themselves like a mantra, and held a strong feeling of regret, much like the majority of his songs. As a band, they took the music and built it up beyond the album version, giving it a more elegant, dynamic climax. The National managed to bring something to a quiet track without destroying the whole of the original and to coax it down gently with a feeling of urgent radiance. That feeling moved through a lot of their live set, bringing an energy that filled in the corners of each song, without pushing it too far.
As with “Mistaken For Strangers,” a song that began with a wash of Interpol-ish guitar riffs and similarly driving post punk drums. With the arrival of the chorus, the song moved it into a totally different place, pushed mostly by the serene coo of Matt Berninger’s M. Gira-light voice and the layers added by the multi-instrumentalist switching between violin and keyboards. Live, each individual element of the band is given room to breathe and a chance to be noticed. This is demonstrated best by drummer Bryan Devendorf, who’s live playing made the show. His ability to shift between the driving fills of Alligator‘s “Mr. November” and the slower tumbling drum lines of songs like “Baby, We’ll Be Fine” enhance their live set beyond the realm of their recorded work.
Another element that doesn’t come through as strongly on the albums as it did live was the violin work. I haven’t been able to figure out if it was Clogs member Padma Newsome, but whoever it was brought a dynamic energy to the whole set. Dressed in a Melt Banana shirt, his energy as he jumped between keyboards and impassioned violin playing brought an extra layer of beauty to a somber song.
“Fake Empire” is a song that typifies the restrained songwriting that The National has nearly perfected over the course of 4 albums. Worked in late into the set, it’s was an introspective post-pop gem that functioned as far as one cared to read into it. As with many of the songs on Boxer, there’s a diffused political subtext that sits below the surface. Be it that you read it as the struggles between two people or a reflection of the world around us, the song functioned beautifully and the layers are there to peel back if you want to. Live, the beauty of Berringer’s words were forced to the forefront. Lines like “tiptoe through our shiny city, with our diamond slippers on” sung with his eyes closed while violinist produced a swirl of reverb-ed violin from the center of the stage made for the highlight of the show.
With the release of Alligator, the glow of critical praise for The National has grown ever stronger; add to that opening for The Arcade Fire at Madison Square Garden and their fan base is quickly expanding. With their solidly moody live show to back them up, their US tour will undoubtedly bring more fans into the fold.
Previously published at Loose Record