Brooklyn’s Radiohead – The National

The National @ The Paramount MarqueeThe Paramount, Seattle WA, 9/19/13 – Ok, I get it, The National are from Ohio, but they now reside in Brooklyn and it’s more meant as a way to understand their sound to call them “Brooklyn’s Radiohead” vs. any statement of fact.  Can we move on?

The National (@The_National) was one of those bands that I didn’t get into early but was encouraged to listen to by many whose musical tastes I have tremendous respect for.  I knew they had to be good if these people were so excited about them.  Not just “oh, yeah, they are good”, but more often, “oh man, fucking the National, so good…”  Definitely needed to check them out.  It all came to a head when a friend of mine suggested we go see them for an upcoming visit to Seattle supporting their new album – Trouble Will Find Me.

The show was far enough away that I had time to catch up on all that I’d missed, about 7 albums and 12 years worth of material.  That can be a hard thing to do, to get really into a band when you’re that far off from them. It helped that I was training for a Rainier summit (shameless plug), I downloaded their albums on my @windowsphone (REALLY shameless plug) and used them as my hiking soundtrack and began to understand why people love this band so much.  They have so much good material, it’s hard to focus on any one bit of it.  You can see why they’ve attained “emo” rock godhood with as hard as they’ve worked for almost a decade and a half.

Their music is a tightly knit mix of rock and blues put through a modernist filter that doesn’t let the occasional experiment bitter the overall effect.  The bar they’ve set on musicality and lyricism are very high and they consistently meet or beat it with each release.  Their tradecraft puts them in the neighborhood of Radiohead with their interesting work that is heartfelt, at times catchy or accessible, all while fomenting a rabid fan base. Like Radiohead, they have forgone the traditional marketing routes and have achieved what they have through hard work and solid song making.

I first heard of the band a few years ago when their breakout “hit” Bloodbuzz Ohio was all over airwaves and internet tubes.  It’s a great song and features front and center the bands centerpiece and special gravitas giver – the deep powerful vocals of lead singer and songwriter Mark Berninger.  The band has two sets of brothers that provide their sound – the Dessner brothers on guitars and keyboards and the Devendorf brothers on percussion – drum and bass.

When you first hear The National, Mark’s vocals are so deep and rich, evocative of music’s greatest baritones like Johnny Cash or Lou Reed, that you might think it’s a put on.  More than a few lead singers have aped a sound and modified their voice to mimic something that might not come naturally to them.  Think of all the lead singers who added the Eddie Vetter grumble to their “instrument” to get a sound they were looking for.  Many people I’ve talked to had the same initial reaction to Mark’s voice, “come on, that voice is too perfect to be real.”  But, I’m happy to say that it is the real thing.  After listening to more and more of their records and seeing them live, it is no doubt that not only is the voice real, so is the art.  This is a band who lives and feels what they are doing, they are not telegraphing it.

Frightened RabbitThe opening band was Frightened Rabbit. I’ve seen them a few times and they are always a great set.  They have a great if somewhat safe rootsy sound that harkens back a bit to their native Scotland.  All of their albums are worth a listen and I’d always enjoy to see them live.  Wall of sound, 3 plus guitars at times, heartfelt lyrics and big boisterous sound all delivered with aplomb.  But, they don’t take the kinds of risks that say, Arcade Fire does.  They don’t disappoint, but they don’t necessarily surprise either.

The National - 1The National set started and their stage set up was what you’d expect to see from a big bold band.  One that appreciates the art form, but keeps the focus on the music.  Large video display in the back, a variety of instruments..  Mark kept pacing around the stage, bottle of white wine in tow.  They played the first couple of songs with this tension hanging around the stage.  Mark seemed either pissed or sad or both.  After about the 3rd or 4th song, he mentioned that he’d been sick and was performing through the fog of cold medicine.  That helped release some of the tension in the room and people seemed to start to enjoy the show a bit more.

"Playing" a guitar upside down?

“Playing” a guitar upside down?

And what a great show to enjoy.  Like Frightened Rabbits, they might not be doing anything completely surprising or experimental, but they just do it so well.  Great melancholy heartfelt stuff performed by a band oozing with charisma, confidence and experience.  These are talented musicians and songwriters who can play a variety of instruments who aren’t trying to broaden their sound for mass appeal, so they go deep into the soundscape they’ve carved out and explore it completely.  Additional musicians would join the round out the sound, at one point an extra guitar was added some sonic layers as it was played standing upside down on its neck – never seen that one before.

Mark plays offstage.

Mark plays offstage.

There were several moments during the set where the band and/or Mark actively tried to engage the audience.  The pessimistic side of me would say it was gimmicky.  But what I choose to believe is that they were attempts to transcend the medium and achieve a closer connection with the audience.  Audiences have gotten more jaded over the years.  I for one am guilty of being less than engaged in a show, showing little emotion and quietly taking it in.  City after city of the majority of an audience simply staring at you might wear on a band.  Mark left the stage to sing just offstage in a stairwell.  An assistant held the mike cord for him and he performed about 1/2 the song out of view from the audience.  The last song of the set the band did an a cappella version of Vaderlyle Crybaby Geeks which encouraged audience participation.  Mark made his way through the audience signing parts of a song.  These efforts all added some element of surprise and expectation to a show that could have focused only on being appreciated vs. experienced.

This is a band that deserves our appreciation, but one that wants to engage us.  I for one am looking forward to seeing where that work ethic and anti-complacency takes this band next.

set list (Frightened Rabbits) – http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/frightened-rabbit/2013/paramount-theatre-seattle-wa-53c7fbbd.html
set list (National)- http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/the-national/2013/paramount-theatre-seattle-wa-3c7a1e3.html

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