There aren’t many artists for whom it’s worth traveling six hours round-trip to see; there are even fewer for whom it’s worth taking that trip after seeing them only nine months before. The National is one of those artists.*
For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of Oregon, Bend is pretty much in the middle of nowhere.** That’s not to say it isn’t a nice place to visit–it turns out that “middle of nowhere” comes with quite the view. There’s a reason why a sleepy town at the foot of the Cascades became the center of a real estate boom, even though it’s hours away from all the other “metropolitan” areas of the state. It’s a scenic drive that involves several different biomes, and you get a real insight into the geographic diversity of Oregon.
I imagine that many people would expect that such a serene setting would be the perfect backdrop for the dulcet tones of The National. What better place for a band that sang a song called “All the Wine” than a state known for its wonderful pinot noir? However, wrapped up in those assumptions is a particular criticism of the band: The National are “boring” and are best described as “dad rock”. One does not expect edginess or excitement within these parameters, and so there are many people that are quick to dismiss the group. But this rush to judgment is often the result of purely superficial listens to the band. On the surface of seemingly pleasant tunes, there lies a quiet (and often furious) intensity, and multiple listens reveal subtle instrumental nuances and dynamics from what initially seemed a flat affect. It’s the equivalent of a difference between a soft and forceful whisper–while the overall volume is relatively the same, the emotional reaction to each is different, and it usually takes multiple listens and careful attention to notice this detail.
If you still don’t believe me after multiple listens (or are unwilling to go through the “work”) and still want to categorize the band as “boring”, then I recommend an easier solution: simply go see The National perform live. All those claims earlier about nuance and subtleties and emotions and so on become much more apparent in a live setting, where you get the added visuals of seeing Matt Berninger roam around the stage while treating the microphone as the last best chance to plead his case, with the Dessners and Devendorfs sets of brothers building up and tearing down walls of sound behind him. On Friday night, Matt had the crowd hanging on his every word, and they were eager to sing along with every lyric, with the two feeding of the energy of the other. The crowd was especially lively and friendly at this performance, eager to participate (though truly befitting a crowd of Oregonians, less than rhythmically-inclined, a malady that was especially apparent during tUnE-yArDs opening set***) and even ready to share “substances” with strangers, a rarity among local crowds.
The set focused heavily on material from Trouble Will Find Me, though considering it took the number one spot in our Best of 2013 list, this was perfectly fine with us. In general, more recent material had a heavier emphasis, with High Violet tracks making up a significant part of the set, though favorites from Boxer and Alligator made appearances as well, plus rare b-sides “Santa Clara” and “About Today”. Even though it had been only a few months since their last visit to the Northwest, there were several subtle shifts in the particular arrangements, most notably with additional leads from Bryce Dessner (forgive me if I named the wrong twin, but I think I got it). The overall mix was better this time around too, with a better balance between the vocals and instruments as well as between the instruments themselves. Matt again enthralled the crowd with his theatrics, ranging from crooning from the side of the stage to punctuating the end of a song by throwing a wine glass at the back curtain.
The band effortlessly switched between gorgeous ballads like “Pink Rabbits” and “Ada” and slow-building rockers like “Don’t Swallow the Cap” and “Sea of Love”, but really shined when they cut loose and tore into ragers like “Abel”, with Matt throwing his whole body into screaming out along with the crowd “My mind’s not alright!” The synergy between the band and the crowd came to a head during the encore, featuring Matt wandering into the crowd for a full-participation version of “Mr. November” (he didn’t walk right past me like he did at Edgefield, but I did my part by helping to make sure the mic cable didn’t clip anyone) and a cathartic “Terrible Love”, and finishing with an unplugged group sing-along of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”. Any fan of the band came away impressed with the performance and happy to share with other fans, and I’d like to imagine that anybody who came in unsure walked out convinced about the greatness of the band.
And to think, as we all calmed down from the buzz of that wonderful experience as we ventured into the town in search of dinner, no one thought to say the words “dad rock”.
*I mean, there wouldn’t be that much point in writing that kind of intro otherwise, but maybe you just like surprises and completely forgot what the title to this post was.
**And for those of you who are looking for material for some sort of anti-Oregon screed, it coincidentally is pretty much in the middle of the state. Though I don’t know why you’re going out of your way to rip on Oregon, but hey man, I ain’t judging.
***A quick note on tUnE-yArDs: I had listened to w h o k i l l after its inclusion on several critics’ lists and came away less than impressed, but the idiosyncratic style was easier to digest in a live setting, and the interesting melodies and danceable rhythms energized the crowd. Unfortunately, there were many in the crowd who tried to clap along with the handclaps used by the group, not thinking that this could possibly be a hindrance when trying to set up a loop with a complex rhythm. Also, there was one person who decided he should jump and clap at the same time–do one or the other, sir, because you cannot do both in time.