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Review Mon Apr 21 2014
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