Seeing The National live was, for me, a little like my experience with seeing Wilco live: something always seemed to come up. I finally caught both bands separately last year, but The National's show, it just wasn't right...a band like The National should not be first experienced as a 5 pm slot at an outdoor festival like Virgin FreeFest. Lead singer Matt Berninger writes lyrics that describe emotional depths that tend to venture into the dark; as such, The National should be experienced inside somewhere, and at night, not in sunlight next to a truck selling funnel cakes.
I'm happy to say I finally got the experience at DAR Constitution Hall recently. It was simply amazing. Goosebump-giving amazing. The show ran close to two hours and at the end, my cheeks hurt from the never-ending grin I wore the whole time.
Their new record, High Violet, took a little while to move into. Lots was happening and I didn't have a lot of extra brain space to focus; it's not a hard record to focus on, but you need to be in the place to allow your mind to do just that. But once I did, boy, did I fall for it hard.
That's why when I saw the previous night's setlist from Boston, I was sorta bummed out, not knowing if this was a band who changed things up or not, because it seemed to lack some of the new tracks I had on repeat ("Lemonworld," "Runaway," "England," "Anyone's Ghost"). But the DAR show, they included all of these and more...it was like they asked me to make the set list of my favorites (includng "Karen," a song they said they rarely play).
There is a wonderful beauty of the almost orchestral arrangements that each of the new songs contain, but this was something that became much more obvious when I saw them live. Guitarist Bryce Dressner has a background in classical guitar and has worked with the likes of Phillip Glass and the Kronos Quartet, so this isn't a huge surprise. What was a surprise was the intensity with which everyone played. Dressner and his brother Bryce would bend themselves over and tear at the guitar strings, almost in frustration that they couldn't go just a little bit faster, or pull just one more note from their instruments. This was particularly evident in "England," when during its swelling center part, everyone on stage proceeded to play like passionate madmen. Berninger used his vocal instrument in much the same way, emoting lyrical banshee screams while pacing the stage, even knocking his mike stand over at one point.
DAR is not the ideal place for a rock show. It has seats. You can't take beers back inside. In DC though, it's the in-between place for bands too big for the 1200-capacity of the 930, yet too small for the Verizon Center, an arena. DAR isn't tiny, but Berninger was determined to make fans feel like it was. During "Abel," Berninger went out onto the floor, walking/singing up the aisles, then walking atop of seat backs, with fans helping him to glide along. This happened again during the encore when they played "Mr. November" (like they'd not play that in DC, c'mon). This time, he took his audience interaction up into the balcony, scaling the entire right side while singing all the while. I wasn't supposed to shoot photos from my seat, but I plead a delightful insanity, right along with the rest of the crowd. And this was before they even got to the end of encore with a mindblowingly stunning version of "About Today!"
This show absolutely ranks as one of the best shows I've ever seen. That's some serious gushing there, but it's 100% true. There are some I know who find The National bland, overrated, "the same song over and over." I did once too. But the very lovely part of The National is that it not only appeals to the brain with Berninger's lyrics, to the mind with their powerful and incredible hooks and time changes, but also to the heart in a way that can only be achieved when experiencing passionate beauty. "Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent," said Victor Hugo. Here's being incredibly glad that The National are compelled to make noise.