Catching up with The National

The National – The Bell House – March 13

Sometimes, it’s nice to plan for shows in advance so as to avoid last minute conflicts, but other times, it’s best to make plans as you go. Three days ago, I didn’t know that the National were playing a couple of shows at the Bell House (conveniently located 7 blocks away from my apartment). Last night, I found myself not at Union Pool seeing Scout Niblett as I had initially planned, but sitting outside the Bell House in the rain, hoping to find a way into the sold-out show. Luckily, I was approached almost right away by a well-dressed man who asked me for my name and phone number. Ten minutes later, I got the call that my name had made it onto the guest list. Success.

I admit I hadn’t heard a thing about the opening band, Buke and Gass. Part of me was worried that they’d be terrible. That happens sometimes. Someone owes someone a favor, someone’s friend wants to play. It gets messy. That said, I was pleasantly surprised. Buke and Gass is just two people – Arone Dyer on vocals and ukulele and Aron Sanchez on bass and percussion.

Buke and Gass

Despite their modest appearance, their sound is surprisingly big and heavier than you might expect from a woman who exudes little kid charm. Arone wore her hair in two messy buns and seemed positively elated to be playing – to the extent that she giggled between nearly every song. If all this is sounding a bit too twee for you, you’ve got the wrong impression. Buke and Gass exert just the right amount of sass, thanks largely to Arone assertive vocals and the duo’s carefully texturized sound. Suffice it to say that I’m looking forward to hearing more from these guys.

As you probably already know, The National’s previous album, Boxer, garnered a considerable amount of praise when it was released in 2007. It made the coveted number one spot on many end-of-the-year lists. Just knowing that the National were about to release a new album had me excited, but an intimate show at the Bell House? How fortuitous.

The National (Photo: Keith Klenowski)

As promised, The National played a number of songs from their upcoming album, High Violet, which officially drops May 11th.

alleged High Violet cover

Though it was the first time I heard any of their new songs, many of the themes expressed in earlier albums (madness, brains, melancholia) seem to crop up in their new material as well, as was evidenced by the very first song.

This is the happiest song on our new record. It’s called “Sorrow,” joked singer Matt Berninger. In between sips of his chilled white wine, Berninger continued, Last night we were nervous, so we came out and had an awesome show. Tonight we’re confident and usually when that happens we take a dive, so we’ll see…

The band followed up “Sorrow” with two additional new songs before breaking into a string of older songs, including “Mistaken For Strangers” and “Secret Meeting, which elicited enthusiastic responses from the crowd.

Compared to the older songs (especially those on Alligator), the newer songs seem more toned down, which is probably for the best – at least for the time being. Though he was able to conceal it for the most part, Berninger is in the process of finding his voice again following his recent decision to give up smoking.  I quit smoking a couple of months ago, so if I coughed on you, it’s not a disease. It’s my lungs regenerating. Sorry.

Despite Matt’s difficulty nailing some of the more aggressive parts of the songs, he certainly did not lack energy. He frenetically paced around the stage and certainly made the encore memorable by rushing into the audience during “Mr. November” and singing the desperate chorus with anyone and everyone he could grab with a good pair of lungs. As he stood on top of first an amp and then a dividing wall, towering over everybody, it was clear that he certainly had the rock star act down. But the thing I love about Matt is that he still manages to be self-deprecating and soft-spoken when he speaks between the songs. I love this discrepancy between his softer side and his sheer recklessness. It’s as if he takes on another persona once he starts singing – especially with songs like “Mr. November,” “Abel,” and the end of “Secret Meeting.”

With as many as ten people playing along at times, the sheer sound produced on stage was impressive, and the addition of the trumpet and trombone pack a special punch.

With a playtime that clocked in at around an hour and forty minutes, this is what a concert should be, and hopefully more will be in the works. After all, they do live in Brooklyn.

Set List
*Sorrow
*Anyone’s Ghost
*Little Faith (Chrome Horse)
Mistaken for Strangers
Secret Meeting
*Afraid of Everyone
*Bloodbuzz Ohio
*Lemonworld
Brainy
All The Wine
Apartment Story
*Runaway
*Conversation 16
Abel
Daughters of the Soho Riots
*England
Fake Empire

Encore:
*Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks
Mr. November
*Terrible Love

*asterisks designate new tracks to the best of my knowledge.

For a great set of photos from the first night’s show, go here.

Also, check out a recent live performance of the new song “Terrible Love:”

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