The National at Roy Wilkins, 8/6/13
Photo By Erik Hess
Roy Wilkins Auditorium, St. Paul
August 6, 2013
Near the start of the National's nearly two-hour, 23-song set at Roy Wilkins on Tuesday night, frontman Matt Berninger quizzically sang, "Didn't anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room?" during a somewhat tepid take on "Secret Meeting." And indeed, with a sluggish, languid start to their performance, the National were in danger of vanishing right in front of us, while the textured sounds and emotional impact of their music were getting swallowed up by the most cavernous live venue in town.
The Brooklyn-based quintet eventually found their footing and their songs took on an impassioned pulse. They then connected with their 3,500 fans in front of them and transposed the Roy ever so briefly into an intimate room.
The band took to the stage to the hazy strains of War on Drugs, while images of them milling about backstage filled the giant screens as the lights went dark in the room. A slow-burning version of "I Should Live In Salt" started things off, just as it does on their new record, Trouble Will Find Me, with the wistful sentiments of the track getting lost a bit amidst the spacious Roy. They tried to forge a hometown bond by bringing out Dark Dark Dark singer Nona Marie Invie for the second number, "Don't Swallow the Cap," with Berninger paying her a lovely compliment, "She sang on our new record a bunch, and made it so much better." However, her vocal contributions to "Cap" were hardly audible, and the track failed to fully materialize.
As blood-red jellyfish-like images filled the massive digital screens behind the band during "Bloodbuzz Ohio," Matt screamed his lyrics out to the crowd, looking to rile them up a bit while also hoping to make some sort of contact. And sadly, towards the start of the set that connection didn't materialize. An unfocused take on "Sea of Love" was followed by a rather lifeless version of "Demons," which was the set's clear low point, leaving me wondering if the notorious Roy was going to claim another musical victim.
Photos By Erik Hess
The National finally broke through on "Afraid of Everyone," as the screens lit up with warm yellow lighting and Berninger poured his heart into the passionate track. "Conversation 16" kept the spark lit, with threatening underwater, Jaws-like images augmenting the "Eat your brains" refrain, as trumpet player Kyle Resnick and trombonist Benjamin Lanz added a brassy elegance. The crowd started to show some life at this point, as well, clapping along to Bryan Devendorf's tempestuous drum beats at the start of "Squalor Victoria," one of the early highlights of the set. Berninger carried the mic stand menacingly above his head like it was an ax as the song spiraled to a dramatic end, and tried to cut through the distance between him and the crowd.
As the band got situated for the next number, Berninger let out a heavy sigh as he caught his breath. "This is a slightly less angry song," he joked, before the delicate guitar strains of "I Need My Girl" slowed the set down just a bit. Its yearning, plaintive quality filled the room, with the group clearly settled in at this point. Matt brought out Nona once again with more heartfelt praise, "We had a lot of people help out on our record, and most of them we buried in the mix, except for Nona. You can still hear her." Invie took a much more prominent vocal role in "This Is the Last Time," as her voice meshed wonderfully with Matt's as the tender song took flight.
A slightly reworked and staid version of "Sorrow" followed, with Berninger remarking after it wound down, "That's a super sad song meant to make you feel better. This is a super angry song. It's about killing your brother, or your brother killing you. Either way, it's the same." And with that the band tore into an abrasive version of "Abel" that ignited the middle portion of the set with its raw fury. Berninger became quite talkative (and hilarious) at this point, as he finally seemed at peace with the spacious room. "This is a song that's often played at weddings. I'm not sure why, because there's a dick reference in there. You don't want to see your grandparents dancing to that." A sentimental version of "Slow Show" followed, with Aaron Dessner's piano strains adding an understated elegance to the number.
Photos By Erik Hess
Theatrical, Lost Highway-like images augmented a loungey version of the Bona Drag name-dropping, "Pink Rabbits," causing Berninger to take a moment to thank their lighting and video director, Michael Brown, who just moved to Minneapolis. "He's like a miniature lumberjack," joked Berninger affectionately. "He's sort of like a mini-Paul Bunyan. He's a big, normal sized man." The stellar video work added an artistic flair to the material throughout the entire performance, consistently enhancing the emotions and style of the songs themselves. Especially on a storming, powerful take on "Graceless," with an image of Matt singing forming a turbulent digital image on the top of the screen which bore a striking resemblance to the cover of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures.
"Shhhh," Matt teased as the crowd roared their approval. "Can you guys just shhhh.... This is called England." As mournful raindrops filled the massive window projected on the screens behind them, the band eased into the elegiac number, with Resnick and Lanz's horns swelling before the window smashed, as digital glass flew everywhere as the song reached its stirring end. Aaron then took a moment to give a shout out to the small contingent of fans who were at their initial 400 Bar show years ago, before Matt lead the group through "About Today," and if you closed your eyes it was almost as if everyone was back in that tiny club just for a moment.
Berninger then took a moment to sing the praises of Resnick and Lanz, who add a regal sophistication to the National's music. "Those guys have been with us for years and years, and we became a better band when they joined us." Lanz and Resnick then led the way on a triumphant version of "Fake Empire," with the main set ending with Berninger kneeling down in front of their riser as the brassy coda rang out jubilantly, before a well-earned ovation saw the band off.
Photos By Erik Hess
After a brief encore break, Berninger took a moment to survey the room, saying (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) "What an awesome place." A simmering version of "Humiliation" launched the encore, gradually building to a discordant, Charles Mingus-like jazzy freakout at the end. The anthemic "Mr. November" proved, as it typically does, to be one of the most memorable moments of the show, with Berninger working his way through the entire main floor of the Roy, fully breaking down the wall between the performer and his fans. It made everyone feel like they were a part of this performance with the band.
Berninger introduced the next number affectionately, "I want to thank Brent. He wrote us a beautiful letter. This is for you, your wife, and your kids." "Terrible Love" followed, which built to an explosion of white strobe lights and thunderous sound, with Matt taking on the role of mad conductor as the song swelled dramatically. The band then huddled around the front of the stage and led an acoustic, unamplified singalong to "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," with the crowd singing along in full voice, joining the band in their awkward, outsider anthem, with the National boldly proving once and for all that, despite the challenges of the room, they could still connect with us.
Personal Bias: I've seen the National about 10 times now, mostly in small clubs. I was worried about how well their intensely intimate songs would carry over at the Roy, but in the end their music won out.
The Crowd: While the main floor was rather full, the balcony was pretty wide open, leading me to think that this show could definitely have worked better in a theatre.
Overheard In The Crowd: "Oh my God, I just touched Matt!"
Photo By Erik Hess
Random Notebook Dump: Openers Daughter, from London, were plagued by a muddy sound mix and an audience mostly unfamiliar with their music. The young group, led by Elena Tonra, has already played two memorable shows in Minneapolis in their blossoming career, but those shows were in the cozy confines of the Entry and the Fine Line, where the intimacy of their music can truly be felt. Sadly, the Roy swallowed up most of the texture of their sound, while the band's shy demeanor clearly didn't help win over the crowd. If you can, see them in a smaller club and their charms will become quite evident.
I Should Live In Salt
Don't Swallow The Cap
Sea Of Love
Afraid Of Everyone
I Need My Girl
This Is The Last Time
Mr. November (Encore)
Terrible Love (Encore)
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks (Encore)
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