The National at First Avenue, 8/6/10
August 6, 2010
On Friday, for the second night in a row the National played to a packed house at First Avenue. It was hot outside, and both hot and steamy inside, but nobody seemed to mind much. Since the release of their much-anticipated, almost universally lauded High Violet in May, Matt Berninger and company have found themselves with a slightly larger piece of the spotlight in which to bask. They're not (and maybe don't intend or care to be) superstars, but can claim a place on the ever-growing list of bands that have small-to-medium-sized rabid fanbases. Nobody seemed to be a casual listener, and it showed as much of the audience hung on their every spoken word between songs and many sang along to the lyrics during them.
For better or worse, bands are usually measured on the strength of their singles. In this age of downloading singles and not albums, it how things work--for now, one would hope. While The National certainly made waves this summer with "Bloodbuzz Ohio", they got it out of the way early and still held everyone rapt for the rest of the set--a true testament to this band that seems to have an almost limitless well of creativity from which to draw. Berninger's thoughtful, often hurt-filled lyrics are enough to make a person well up at times, while at turns ("Abel", for instance from their Alligator release) they inspire the audience to flail and scream wildly. The backing band (two set of brothers: Aaron and Bryce Dessner; Scott and Bryan Devendorf) plays it cool and business-like while Berninger seems to be working through things right there on stage tilting his head at odd angles and displaying almost child-like mannerisms from time to time. It's going to be fun to see what the next step is; where they go from here.
There had been buzz online during the day Friday about a special guest they had brought along for Friday and the smart money was on Justin Vernon (Bon Iver, GAYNGS). The smart money was right. He was a guest musician on High Violet and is also local royalty, despite being from Eau Claire, WI. He played guitar and sang backup on "Afraid Of Everyone" and "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" and also made an appearance during the encore for several songs. It added a little--scratch that--a lot of something extra to what played out to be an all-around gem of a show.
There's a line in "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" in which Berninger sings "I'll explain everything to to the geeks". But taking a look at the crowd, many of whom had black-frame glasses and/or ironic t-shirts on, it can be safely said that the National has already done that. Maybe they're geek saviors or just pied pipers of nerd-dom or maybe they're something else entirely, but they have struck a chord within many: it's ok to hurt, it's ok to love because you can't have one without the other and once you understand that your life can become anything you want it to be. Those are big ideas but, luckily for us, the National don't seem to be out of them just yet.
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