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Review Mon Apr 21 2014

Review: The National Fits Their Sound Into Untitled


Last Wednesday, I was lucky enough to be in the room for a performance by The National in the lower levels of Untitled, a ritzy cocktail bar near Merchandise Mart. The band was in town all of last week for a sold-out four-night stand at the Chicago Theatre, but still found the time to play an abbreviated electric set in a room not much larger than the hall at Schubas.

In my conversations with friends who dislike The National, they've told me that the band's records strike them as being a bit too austere, lacking some indispensable irreverence that would mark the songs as rock music instead of museum exhibits. Admittedly, The National can be somewhat one-note on their albums, and for me, the power of those albums comes from my feeling that few bands play that particular note better or with more detail and intricacy. However, when playing live, The National strikes an altogether different pose. If the band's albums sound like someone's attempt to keep their anxieties and frailties at bay, the live show revels in how hysterical the characters in the songs threaten to become. The work of Aaron and Bryce Dessner (twin brothers and the two guitarists of the band) and the unwavering solidity of Bryan and Scott Devendorf (also brothers, on drums and bass respectively), keep the songs firmly on the rails, allowing lyricist and vocalist Matt Berninger to, for lack of a better term, completely lose his cool. His delivery, especially on the faster numbers, can become uncomfortably intense, as he ditches his typical baritone for a rabid dog of a scream.

After a quick introduction by Marty Lennertz of WXRT, the band propelled into "Don't Swallow The Cap," the first single from 2013's Trouble Will Find Me. They sounded tight and powerful; you could hear how the months of touring had bolstered the band's chemistry, but the entire experience was initially surreal. I've been a fan of The National for years, but I'd seen them exclusively at festivals and larger stages. They hadn't necessarily upended their essence during their steady uptick of popularity, but they had clearly become a "big band," and their style of playing now leans into the big rooms that they consistently sell out. It was quite a shift to hear such a grandiose sound constrained into a tiny space.


The set was entirely comprised of selections from Trouble, save for "Fake Empire," from 2007's Boxer. Admittedly, the biggest thrills for me came from the more energetic selections, including "Sea of Love" and "Graceless." The latter song was particularly revelatory to watch from close up. The repetitive propulsion of the drums and bass allowed the Dessners (as well as guest instrumentalists on keys and horns) to layer slab after slab of distortion and barely-controlled chaos onto the foundation, until finally, in the last moments of the song, Berninger's vocals buckled under the pressure and let loose. Although the band seemed to hold back a bit at points, cognizant that they were due onstage for a headlining show at the Chicago Theatre in a few hours' time, moments like the conclusion of "Graceless" had their total commitment. Like many of their songs, the performance was a spiral into the sonic equivalent of a man trying to break loose of his strait jacket.

The band was short on chatter and audience interaction, seemingly wanting to fit in as many songs as they could in the time allotted (from onstage to last note, only 35 minutes passed). Though it felt like it was over just after it began, the impact was still sizable. The National has worked for 15 years, and are now reaping the benefits of their labor; they could have easily phoned in a set such as this one. That they didn't is a testament to the band's continued drive and intensity, an intensity significantly amplified by such an unconventional venue.

Don't Swallow The Cap
I Should Live In Salt
Sea of Love
This is the Last Time
I Need My Girl
Fake Empire

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knh86 / April 25, 2014 2:35 PM

I was at all four shows last week and was wondering about secret shows! I knew I must've missed at least one. How did one get in to this? I get alerts for all of the band's social network posts and checked all of XRT's emails for an announcement but saw nothing. God, I would've loved to be at Untitled. Ah well.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »


  Chicago Music Media

Alarm Magazine
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Boxx Magazine
Brooklyn Vegan Chicago
Can You See The Sunset From The Southside
Chicago Reader Music
Chicagoist Arts & Events
Chicago Music Guide
Chicago Singles Club
Country Music Chicago
Cream Team
Dark Jive
The Deli Chicago
Jim DeRogatis
Fake Shore Drive
Gowhere Hip Hop
The Hood Internet
Jaded in Chicago
Largehearted Boy
Little White Earbuds
Live Fix Blog
Live Music Blog
Loud Loop Press
Oh My Rockness
Pop 'stache
Pop Matters
Resident Advisor
Sound Opinions
Sun-Times Music Blog
Theft Liable to Prosecution
Tribune Music
UR Chicago
Victim Of Time
WFMU's Beware of the Blog
Windy City Rock


Abbey Pub
Andy's Jazz Club
Aragon Ballroom
Auditorium Theatre
Beat Kitchen
Bottom Lounge
Buddy Guy's Legends
The Burlington
California Clipper
Concord Music Hall
Congress Theater
Cubby Bear
Double Door
Elbo Room
Empty Bottle
Green Mill
The Hideout
Honky Tonk BBQ
House of Blues
Kingston Mines
Lincoln Hall
Logan Square Auditorium
Mayne Stage
The Mutiny
Old Town School of Folk Music
Park West
The Promontory
Red Line Tap
Reggie's Rock Club & Music Joint
The Riviera
Thalia Hall
The Shrine
Symphony Center
Tonic Room
Uncommon Ground
The Vic
The Whistler

  Labels, Promoters
  & Shops:

Alligator Records
Beverly Records
Bloodshot Records
Dave's Records
Delmark Records
Drag City
Dusty Groove
Flameshovel Records
Groove Distribution
He Who Corrupts
Jam Productions
Jazz Record Mart
Kranky Records
Laurie's Planet of Sound
Minty Fresh
Numero Group
mP Shows
Permanent Records
Reckless Records
Smog Veil Records
Southport & Northport Records
Thick Records
Thrill Jockey Records Touch & Go/Quarterstick Records
Victory Records

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Transmission is the music section of Gapers Block. It aims to highlight Chicago music in its many varied forms, as well as cover touring acts performing in the city. More...
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