So that’s what all the fuss is about. Okay, I get it now.
The National was one of the most buzzed-about bands of 2007, with their latest album, “Boxer,” landing at or near the top of many a year-end best-of list. Perhaps all that ginormous indie hype is why I stayed away; perhaps I just had too much other great music to listen to. But for whatever reason, I never got around to hearing “Boxer” last year.
So when I learned the Ohio-via-New York quintet was playing Messiah College, well, that was a no-brainer. A proving ground, of sorts. What better way to determine if they’re really worthy of all this chatter?
Going to a concert without knowing the band’s songs is a much different experience from seeing a beloved favorite. The group is either going to win you over or they’re not; with no pre-conceived notions or built-in goodwill, there’s no bias. The music has to stand on its own, has to reach out and grab you. The National have this territory covered.
It all starts with frontman Matt Berninger, whose deep, arresting baritone drifts in and out of the songs like a breeze, never overstated or trying too hard, yet impossible to ignore. It’s like his vocal is always there in the room, and he just takes the cover off and lets it out when the music requires.
The band surrounding him creates the perfect atmosphere to support Berninger’s strong-yet-whispy presence. Most songs are mellow, a mix between electric and acoustic, and some are downright quiet in true “indie” stylings these days. Even when the band revs up and gets loud, it’s still in a decidedly minor key (I guess—I’m no composer). The difference between The National and, say, Sufjan Stevens (whom I generally cannot stand) is Berninger’s voice; he does subdued with power that gives the band true gravitas. These songs are intimate and epic, precise and expansive, all at the same time.
The National played for about 80 minutes, and if I had to guess offered up about 15 songs. Knowing the material hardly at all, it would have been impossible to take notes on a setlist; I know they opened with “Start a War,” closed with two songs off the “Cherry Tree” EP, and in between played through a majority of “Boxer.” Particular favorites for me were “Slow Show,” “Mistaken for Strangers,” and “Fake Empire.”
Six years ago, I went to see Wilco for the first time under much the same circumstances. I didn’t know a single song when I walked into the venue, but wanted to see them live to find out for myself if all the accolades were genuine. By the end of a two-hour show, I knew I wanted to hear much, much more (and have basically spent the intervening time doing just that). I clearly remember the three-hour drive home from Columbus to Huntington playing “A.M.” over and over and thinking how well that album’s rootsy vibe fit with the wide-open countryside of the Midwest. I was hooked.
Last night, I left Messiah late amidst a slight rain, only rarely encountering other lights on a dark road, Berninger’s voice filling every nook of my car. I can’t think of a better setting for my first listen through “Boxer."
Yes, I’m hooked.
Thanks to this site, I now have a setlist (hooray!). From what I've read of other shows, the Messiah performance was only a couple songs short in the encore, which I'm assuming was due to the fact that Berninger was suffering from a cold. Interestingly, not a single song was played from their first two albums (much like the Snow Patrol concert I saw last year)—I wonder how the long-timers feel about that …
More than a week later, I'm stopping myself from listening to "Boxer" (and the rest of the albums) too many times so I don't wear them out. Here's the set from last weekend's show:
Running time: 80 minutes
Start a War
Mistaken for Strangers
Baby We'll Be Fine
All the Wine
Racing Like a Pro
Daughters of the Soho Riots
Wasp Nest (which Berninger said is a rarity, but I cannot confirm)