Thursday, June 10, 2010

Concert Review: The National + The Antlers at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington D.C.

The conclusion of Sunday night’s The National show made me reminisce about the old days – as have the past few years when dealing with the indie music world. I had just seen two amazing bands play to an energetic and sold-out crowd of 3,700 people at DAR Constitution Hall in DC. Both bands were amazing, their sets near flawless. But, I was constantly reminded of the first time I saw The National and just how much things have changed since them.

My first experience with the band was more chance than anything – seeing them play to a half capacity crowd of about 150 people as the opening band for Ambulance LTD. I knew who they were at the time but hadn’t truly fallen for them until seeing their forty-five minute set.

Fast forward to Sunday night. I sat in a beautiful, historic, yet just plain odd venue. There were what appeared to be man’s first attempt at luxury boxes in front of me, named for the fifty states, which were basically knee-level walls with five fancy chairs crammed in. It was dark, and unmarked, prompting fellow concert goer/SIC consultant Tyrus Manuel to remark, "If I had a dollar for every confused hipster I've seen tonight, I'd be a rich man." Very true. And the lights going down, prompting everyone to rush in, only added to the problem.

The Antlers took the stage, and I was more than excited given they released the best album of 2009 with Hospice. I had heard mixed reviews of their live show, and after experiencing it, can almost see where why some have panned it. I couldn’t agree less, but I maybe understand a little.

Anyone coming into the set expecting to hear songs played in a familiar fashion would be in for a rude awakening. Their set contained only songs from Hospice from what I can tell, but they were completely altered, arranged with completely new music but familiar lyrics. Fast songs from the album were played a bit slower and on the contrary, slow songs were given a punch and made into the rockers of the evening. Acoustic guitars were replaced with vocal chants, screams with whispers. And quiet moments burned out after a few minutes of feedback and fuzz.

Peter Silberman’s voice actually sounded better than when produced on record, and when combined with the new musical direction, it was like hearing an entire set of brand new music, but I was able to sing along to every word. I can only hope that the musical parts we heard will be used on their next album, and if that is the case, I can understand why they put so much effort into crafting the stage show they gave us.

I, honest to god, was a bit worried I’d be walking out disappointed after The National set after being completely blown away by The Antlers.

But that was all just complete silliness once The National took the stage, accompanied by a keyboardist/violinist, trumpeter, and trombone player, launching quickly into “Runaway” off of their latest LP, High Violet. I quickly noticed how amazing the sound was, and I’m still not sure if it was the venue, or the band's attention to detail, given their sound tech paced back and forth around the top tier, listening to the output of each loudspeaker.

The show progressed, and they started “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” which is one of those perfect live songs that allows the audience to sing the song then freak out at the end when things get loud. And while watching frontman Matt Berninger a few songs later during “Squalor Victoria,” I started to notice how he would quickly go from awkwardly standing upright patting his hands on his legs, to yelling into his microphone hunched over with his back to the crowd. And when I mean yell, I mean freaking yell – the words “squalor Victoria” seemed to echo even after the song was over.

And that intensity persisted. Berninger literally left the stage during the opening portion of “Abel” only to return and hop into the crowd, yelling, “My mind’s not right!” with the help of the audience that had surrounded him. He then climbed over people and seats to the back of the crowd, still yelling the same lyrics over and over. I began to wonder how his voice would hold up at the end of the night.

The encore gave us a gift in “Karen,” that was literally introduced as a present since it’s a song they rarely play. But for me, it was the only letdown of the show, and I really don’t even know why. It sounded off – it was sung in a hurried fashion, and the music was lacking something that it once contained, even with the addition of horns and strings.

There would be no question of Matt Berninger’s vocal abilities after the audience-aided choral shouting match that was “Abel” once “Mr. November” kicked off. He once again took off into the crowd, but this time climbing into the upper bowl of the auditorium, armed with what has to be the longest mic chord in the world. He made his way from section to section, embracing groups of people while yelling, “I won’t fuck us over – I’m Mr. November” with each passing row. People rushed out of their seats and ran toward him. He wove his way to them, and repeated his call until the band ended things yards away on stage.

And as the band regrouped minutes later, they threw down what was the highlight of the evening for me, “Terrible Love.” Being one of those songs that builds, gets louder and more emotional as it progresses, it seemed to draw in all of the energy of the evening, culminating in a blistering wall of guitar, vocals, strings, horns, cymbals, lights, and cheering. It was one of those rock moments you don’t want to end, knowing it will be what you remember most from the evening.

And it remains my moment of the evening, while the overriding theme ultimately comes down to change. From stage presence, to depth of sound, to crowd size, The National is only the same band by name. And in this case, unlike some of their now-huge peers, change is more than welcomed.

Set List:
Mistaken for Strangers
Anyone's Ghost
Bloodbuzz Ohio
Secret Meeting
Slow Show
Squalor Victoria
Afraid of Everyone
Little Faith
All the Wine
Conversation 16
Apartment Story
Geese of Beverley Road
Daughters of the Soho Riots
Fake Empire

Mr. November
Terrible Love
About Today


  1. Excellent review! I was there that evening and really agree with you on many points. You are dead-on with the confusion of seating (no help from the grouchy "ushers" working that evening). I concur with "Karen" - happy to have it ("gift"), but couldn't put my finger on why it was off - probably just lack of practice playing it live? I did notice that bass and guitar switched between (one of the) Dessner(s) and Scott Devendorf - which happened on other Alligator tunes performed; could this have maybe made things sloppy? Anyway my point is this: the show immediately rocketed into my top 5 live performances of all time (and I've been going to shows since the late 80s). I was in a state of euphoria for the next hour as my girlfriend and I wandered around the streets of DC looking for cab post-show. Looking back, I am still riding that high that The National gave me - oh the power of live music and oh the power of the mighty, mighty band The National - to do it all in the shadow of the Washington Monument in a very unique venue made this great performance even more memorable!

  2. As the "girlfriend" mentioned in the comment above, I have to agree with both the review and the comments. However, I believe that not mentioning the first set closure "Fake Empire" is to gloss over one of the greatest performances of the night. Additionally, the encore performance of "About Today" had me practically in tears. A song I have rarely heard, its completely realistic lyrics about any solid relationship having its ups and downs, sung with Matt Berringer's haunting voice and the beautifully orchestrated layers of the National's musicality made this final piece simply breathtaking for me. As we walked around DC looking for said post-show cab, I stated what has held true: It is difficult for me to listen to the album versions of The National now. They are a band far better live than any studio version of their music.

  3. Great review. This was my first time seeing The National, and I was not disappointed. They truly are an incredible band that deserves every bit of success they have achieved. I also didn't realize they were such engaging performers, and yes, they were flawless. Personal favorite of the night: Geese of Beverley Road. The real surprise of the night for me though was The Antlers. I'd heard of them, but had never actually heard any of their music prior to the show, so I came in cold. I found their performance completely overwhelming emotionally, possibly the closest thing to a religious experience I have ever had. Though that's probably hyperbole, I nearly broke down at the song I later found out was called "Kettering." The fragile nature of their music, plus the cavernous acoustics of DAR and their epic crescendos were awe-inspiring. Should they come back to DC, and I hope they do, they better be headlining their own tour. I will pay whatever I have to to see them.