Monday, June 7, 2010

Concert Review: The Antlers/The National D.A.R. Constitution Hall Sunday June 6th

The National have been slowly moving up in the world since their humble Cincinnati days and it is only fitting that as their sound has grown, so have the venues and excited crowds. This wasn't the first time that the band played the prestigious Constitution Hall but as they told the audience, last time they were opening for The Arcade Fire and the auditorium was only half-full. While I would have killed to see that show, The National won't be playing second fiddle to anyone any more, and that whole 'half-full crowd' thing isn't going to be a problem from now on either.

The show was kick started by up-and-comers/NPR darlings, The Antlers, a band whose live performance surprisingly owes more to Sonic Youth than anyone else. Though I've listened to their album Hospice a great deal and quite like it, I'm always a little suspicious of a three-piece band making sounds akin to category 5 hurricanes live, especially when there is only one guitar on stage. The other problem I had with their set was the fact that The Antlers stuck to one unbendable formula throughout - literally every song starts with a whimper, the drums kick in three or four minutes in, building to a moment when you will be awash in sound, followed by three or four false endings and then a final ending that consists of a couple minutes of feedback. Literally. Every. Song. Still, they had wonderful moments of glory and a couple songs that were able to stand out from the rest of the noise. Also, I think their show would have been much more enjoyable if the guy running sound had not been wretched at his job. The bass on the low end drowned out basically everything The Antlers were doing to the point that it was hard to breath in my seat and inducing all the people around me to plug their ears. I'm also willing to accept that perhaps the acoustics were just terrible where I was sitting.

The National came out as a breath of fresh air with the slow burning "Runaway," a track I find the most boring of their entire catalogue, but a song made lovely and immediate in the live setting. But not even The National were immune to early sound problems. Matt Berninger voice, usually deep and overpowering was drowned out by bass and echoes right along with the many wonderful subtleties in their music. A few songs in, while I was becoming more and more reminiscent of the intimacies of the 9:30 Club, Berninger stepped off stage to have a chat with the sound guy (and hopefully punch him in the face). Afterward the vocals were clearer, the intricacies came through and the mood in my neck of the concert hall changed dramatically.

The band ripped though a set that leaned mostly on Alligator and the brand new High Violet (an album I'm still learning to embrace, but am excited to hear again after this great performance) although they did play a couple tracks from Boxer and even one brilliant one from Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. Standouts included new songs like "Afraid of Everyone," "Conversation 16" and "Lemonworld" as well as "Squalor Victoria," "About Today," and the always perfect, "Fake Empire."

Berninger was at his most charming, joking with the crowd and drinking out of a cup that was probably white wine and probably not water. He even came into the crowd on screamers, "Abel" and "Mr. November," in which he ended up on the upper deck of auditorium ten feet from yours truly. Decked out in a natty suit and 'Most Interesting Man in the World' facial hair, it was impossible not to develop my very own man-crush on Mr. Berninger.

While he did his thing, the band sounded as tight as ever. The five-piece I saw a few years ago have grown into a stage show that often looks more like Broken Social Scene - with violins, keyboards, trumpets and saxophones coming at you from all directions. While this can sometimes result in a little bit of overkill (seriously, unless you're a ska band or Belle and Sebastian, you should put the horn down once in a while), The National still play to their strengths, that being the exceptional disjointed guitar playing of the Dessner twins and the ridiculously perfect drumming of Bryan Devendorf (seriously, he might be the best drummer alive today). The show ended with the fan favorite, tear-jerker, "About Today," a song that builds and releases like a marriage that has hit a breaking-point and is rescued from divorce at the last second by a sincere apology - which also happens to be what the song is about.

It was a fitting end to a show that was trying at best in the beginning, but eventually won the crowd over and then took its heart. I've seen The National four or five times now and while exiting the show last night, began immediately looking forward to the next time.


  1. I totally agree with you on pretty much all of that! They were absolutely amazing! The Antlers definitely bored me a bit, which was disappointing, but expected. I just can't seem to get into them. Matt Berninger was so amazing and charming and he definitely made me swoon. The Dessner brothers, of course, didn't disappoint and I absolutey agree with you that Devendorf is one of the best drummers out there today. (And wasn't he just so adorably in his own little world back there?) I commented on that to a friend and he said he wasn't that impressed. To me, the drummer completes the experience and Devendorf does such a great job of adding to that distinctive National sound. I also agree with you that it's very easy to overdo the horns and I felt they did a great job of balancing that. They played a lot of my favorites and I was so surprised to hear About Today at the end. I cried at least 3 times during the show. An overall AMAZING performance! (Minus the 2 drunk, loud chicks behind me and "SUPERFAN," as we named him, up front pointing his fingers in the air through the whole show. He was pretty entertaining and I thought it was so sweet how Berninger high-fived him at the end.) Also, it was nice to see thew view from your seats as I was sitting 3rd row center and it's cool to be that close but you kinda miss out on the whole EXPERIENCE when you're that close.

  2. Anonymous10/6/10 12:33

    I wish I could have been there! Did anyone actually buy High Violet? The picture of all the National is most unflattering...the drummer looks awful. That being said their music is great!

  3. What the hell are you talking about? It was like the #2 on the Billboard charts the week it came out! And who cares what the drummer looks like...?