Home > Uncategorized > What Makes You Think I’m Enjoying Being Led to the Flood?: The National, 2009.05.29

What Makes You Think I’m Enjoying Being Led to the Flood?: The National, 2009.05.29

The National/Colin Stetson
The Electric Factory
Philadelphia, PA

IV. Flirting with Disaster 

As you will recall from last time, dear readers*, Anthony, Bill and I (and Bill’s girlfriend, Jess) had decided to fly in the face of disaster and thumb our noses at the National Curse, purchasing four tickets to the May 29 show at the Electric Factory. And predictably… nothing happened. There was no grand disaster. Hell, security didn’t even try to stop me and tell me that my camera wasn’t allowed. It all went so very, very smoothly. Perhaps the third time is a charm? (I decided to forgo the full description of the events leading up to the show itself, mostly because Bill has already posted a thoroughly entertaining, complete, and accurate account on his blog. He did mercifully leave out the part where I made an ass of myself and cracked the windshield of my car, but I just negated that act of kindness in spectacular style. Also, in case anyone is curious as to what my aka acquisitions were:  The Thermals – Now We Can See LP; John Phillips – John, The Wolfking of L.A. LP; Red Hot + Bothered 10” compilation. Record stores are awesome.)

All that was left to do now was wait.

V. The Trick Is to Keep Breathing

Colin Stetson was the opening act. I did not know what to expect, having never heard of him before, but I was surprised to see the stage set up with a lone microphone, a baritone sax and what appeared to be an alto sax. When he came out and began playing unaccompanied, I began to wonder how an act such as he had been chosen to open for a rock band. This is not to say that he was bad – quite the opposite, in fact. He was wonderful. Unfortunately, I don’t really know how to explain his style. Bill described it as “techno played on a saxophone,” but I don’t really agree with that assessment (with all due respect, Bill). If anything, and I know that saying this makes me sound like a pretentious, over-intellectual douche, but his composition and even his playing style reminds me of the work of Erik Friedlander. The compositions, which I am assuming were originals, were marked with a good deal of unorthodox technique; techniques that I don’t know the names for, because I know almost zilch about saxophones and therefore cannot speak about his set with even a pretense of intelligence or knowledge. So I will stick to what I know: the music rocked without being rock music; his combination of sustained mournful tones through circular breathing with the groove of low pedal tones and an almost beatbox-like effect that he employed when playing the baritone created an effect that I had never heard from a sax player. I was kind of almost dancing, even, and everyone knows that the almost never happens. Mr. Stetson only played a four- or five-piece set, and seeing the amount of effort he put into playing the compositions, particularly those for the baritone, I was kind of surprised he played for that long; they obviously required a degree of physical stamina and discipline to which I simply could not relate. Looking around, I was surprised to see how many other people seemed to be enjoying his set. I had expected people to either be indifferently bored or to actively dislike it. Once again, my misanthropy and faux-elitism let me down.

VI. Go Ahead, Go Ahead, Throw Your Arms In the Air Tonight

The National were nothing short of powerful, captivating, and spellbinding from the start. Opening the set with a new song of quiet, controlled intensity, “The Runaway,” was a remarkably audacious move – not only did the band risk alienating fans by not drawing them in with an instantly recognizable song, but they also dared to set the bar almost impossibly high by kicking things off with what they must know is possibly one of their most endearingly majestic and hypnotic songs yet. Indeed, the song was one of the absolute high water marks of the show for me, and is quickly making me very excited for the next album.

The National live are all about presence. Looking at my photos, you will note that Matt Berninger has approximately two “poses” while singing; in essence, if you’ve seen one photo of Matt performing you’ve seen them all. Photographically, this would suggest a certain stasis, a stiffness, a detachment from the performance. In truth, however, none of this is true. While Mr. Berninger may look boring/ed in the photographs, witnessing him perform live, the closest analogy I can think of is a preacher; there is such an intensity to his stage presence, and when he grips the microphone just so and half-hugs himself, it is with CONVICTION. And  his eyes, when he opens them, have that slightly wild, distant look that is often associated with the true fanatic. When he’s not at the microphone, Mr. Berninger stalks around the stage like a feline, pacing back and forth, eyeing the crowd, seeming to focus in on the energy of the room and feed off of it. Unfortunately, anybody who has not seen the National live probably cannot recognize any of this in the photos. Those of us who have shared this experience, know, though. The National, in spite of the brooding, is an affirmation of life, a controlled explosion of energy and emotion.

The band, augmented by three horn players (including Colin Stetson) and keyboardist Doveman, was flawless, in spite of the absence of violinist Padma Newsome. I don’t want this review to turn into a groveling praise fest, but the band were really just that good. I really only have two criticisms to offer. The first is the setlist: it would really be nice for the band to acknowledge that they released records before Alligator. Seriously, “Fashion Coat,” “Murder Me Rachael,” “Wasp Nest”… I would have loved to hear almost any of the songs from Cherry Tree or Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. Or even rearrangements of songs from the first album. And what about a stripped-down reading of “So Far Around the Bend”? As much as I love both Alligator and Boxer, I think some representation of their pre-fame albums wouldn’t hurt. As it is, their current live set makes it seem as if these two albums are the length and breadth of their career. I just think that sticking almost exclusively to this material represents a missed opportunity and almost implies that the earlier work is inferior or unworthy, which is absolutely untrue.

My second complaint: the horn section absolutely ruined “Slow Show,” which is possibly my favorite song from Boxer. It’s a shame. That song needs to be more stripped down.

Still, though, when all is said and done these complaints/criticisms don’t amount to much. The boys put on a memorably spellbinding show, played their asses off, and debuted three songs that, if they are representative, indicate that album #5 could conceivably be their best yet.  If that’s the trade-off, then sure, I’ll endure a curse.


The Runaway (new song)
Start a War
Mistaken for Strangers
Secret Meeting
Baby, We’ll Be Fine
Slow Show
Vanderlylle Crybaby (new song)
Squalor Victoria
All the Wine
Apartment Story
Green Gloves
Fake Empire
Blood Buzz Ohio (new song)
Mr. November
About Today

For other perspectives on the show, I strongly urge you to check out Jess’s review over at Crawdaddy or A.D.’s review at Music Maven. Both are very well-written reviews by awesome people whose blogs you should be reading on a daily basis anyway.

My entire set of photos from this show can be viewed at Flickr.

Also, after all my praise of “The Runaway,” why don’t you check out this awesome, high quality live video of it, courtesy of QTV in Canada?

* – I kind of feel like, no matter how small it may be, I now have something of an “audience” or “reader base.” I hope it does not offend the two or three of you that I refer to you directly; this is a very exciting moment for me. Yes, I am a sad, sad man.

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