Monday, June 7, 2010

Concert Review: The National, with The Antlers

DAR Constitution Hall
Washington, DC
6 June 2010

In one of their many banters between songs, The National’s Matt Berninger and Aaron Dessner talked about the last time they played DC’s Constitution Hall, a 2007 show in support of the Arcade Fire. When the National opened that evening, the seats were half full. What a difference three years and two highly successful albums make. By the time the National took the stage last night, every seat in the 81-year-old concert hall was full.

Opening act the Antlers were less fortunate. When the Brooklyn three-piece took the stage, the crowd was thin, with almost as many people congregating in the lobby to sip their drinks as those gathered inside to witness the sonic experimentation. Those who cared more about their beers missed one hell of a performance.

The Antlers stuck exclusively to songs off 2009’s Hospice in their limited stage time, but they seemed to feel no pressure to stick to them faithfully. Instead, on songs like “Kettering” and “Bear,” the quiet parts were played even slower than on the album, while the louder bits got loud enough to make your ears bleed. Their moving performance of “Two” was especially poignant, but album highlight “Sylvia” was sadly missing. The Antlers played their guts out and then packed their own equipment into their small panel van that was dwarfed by the National’s mammoth tour bus and moving truck.

The National came out later and slid into “Runaway,” which seemed a strange opener since it is the slowest song on High Violet. But from there they launched straight into a rocking version of “Mistaken for Strangers.” When they played current single “Bloodbuzz Ohio” two songs later, I wondered if they would be able to maintain the crowd’s excitement, having exhausted two fan favorites in the first four songs. But I doubt many National fans walked out of Constitution Hall disappointed.

Throughout the performance, they showcased most of the songs off High Violet while managing to work in many of the great songs off Alligator and Boxer. One of the show’s highlights came from a slightly different arrangement of “Apartment Story”: The signature drumbeat did not begin until after the first chorus. By the end all six voices were singing “all things are well / we’ll be alright” in unison, and most of the crowd seemed to lend their voices to this catharsis.

On “Abel,” Berninger hopped into the orchestra seating and walked the aisles, stagehands trying desperately to unravel his microphone chord behind him. When he reached the back of the crowd, Berninger climbed on a chair and shouted the rest of the lyrics in a throng of fans. The National later closed their set with “Fake Empire,” the song that seemed to draw the most fan requests.

After a short break, the National returned for five encore songs. Bryce Dessner announced, “This is an old song we don’t play very often” before they started into a beautiful version of “Karen.” High Violet tracks “Lemon World” and “Terrible Love” framed one of the show’s best moments, a powerful performance of Alligator’s “Mr. November.” Berninger again went into the crowd, this time climbing into the balcony, and again shouted the last half of the song perched on a seat surrounded by fans.

The National’s performance in our nation’s capital confirmed what critics and Billboard sales figures have been suggesting: This is one of the most important rock bands of the day. Their level of intensity, the flawless execution of their performances, and their easy and captivating stage presence blended to create a truly remarkable concert that every fan owes it to herself to catch as soon as possible.

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