Beginning with their entrance onto the stage, The National establishes itself as a group of musicians committed to craft over showmanship. Lead singer Matt Beringer strides onto the stage in his sportcoat and is holding a bottle of wine and a glass. He places them carefully on the stage, and approaches the microphone. There are no concert cliches to be found, just a drumbeat, the opening chords, and that baritone voice that epitomizes the band’s sound.
I was fortunate to be sitting in the balcony for what was The National’s fifth of sixth consecutive shows at New York’s Beacon Theater. I had been waiting for this for three years. The first time I saw them, the band appeared on the same ticket as Modest Mouse and R.E.M. at Jones Beach. I arrived late, just as they started “Fake Empire.” Ultimately, two songs gave a sense for how capable they were, but I needed to hear more.
Between then and now, the band released High Violet, their most successful and critically acclaimed album to date. The show began with “Ada” from the Boxer, a classic slow build tune consistent with the structure of many of their most popular songs. Next, they went to “Anyone’s Ghost” from High Violet. Performed beautifully, the song was one of many played from The National’s most recent album. Although released in 2010, these shows were billed as the conclusion of the High Violet tour. However, a couple of new songs suggest that another release may be in the offing.
The National has established itself as one of the premier draws in Indie Rock, and they have clearly earned the respect of their peers. In addition to recent collaborations with artists such as Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, live performances now feature guest appearances from friends from other popular acts. The first such guest on this night was Richard Parry, who also worked with the band in the studio on High Violet. Although introduced as the guitarist for Kings of Leon, his vocals on the performance of Conversation 16 are recognized as belonging to a friend from Arcade Fire, who first toured with The National several years ago. Parry seemed to be on the stage more than he was off the stage, and he fit in beautifully. Later, Trey Anastasio of Phish walked on stage for three songs, beginning with Bloodbuzz Ohio. I haven’t seen him live since I first saw Phish over 20 years ago in a small club, and admittedly I have never been a huge Phish fan (a 15 minute performance of “Contact” took the term jam band to a bit of an extreme). But Trey’s guitar at the crescendo of Bloodbuzz was fantastic, and made for a perfect live rendition of the song.
The sound of the National is a melancholic one, and at a concert the songs wash over the audience bringing waves of emotion. When they played one of their two new songs, “I Need My Girl” I felt compelled to reach out to my wife who was sitting next to me. It wasn’t unusual to see fans smiling and crying at the same time. The Beacon always provides perfect acoustics, and the staging and lighting accentuated the building sound in most songs.
It turns out that waiting three years was worth it……this show was worth waiting even longer for in the end. As they wrapped up a five song encore (“Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” being the appropriate choice to close things out) I couldn’t help but to reflect on how powerful a performance I had just seen. The National is that band that understands our struggles, and who we can turn to when we feel a bit lost. Beyond the amazing sound, there is a humanity to the lyrics and structure that explains much of their appeal. The balcony wasn’t shaking, but the show was unforgettable.