In a New York Times piece written on the National last April, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe explained how he took his bandmate Mike Mills to see the group in London. It took half a song for Mills to say it was the most amazing thing he'd heard in years. Stipe explained: "It's instantaneous. It touches you."
While it's hard to pinpoint what, exactly, it was about the National's Monday night Fillmore show that was so immediately captivating, Matt Berninger's deep baritone vocals -- which fit somewhere between Joy Division's Ian Curtis and Tindersicks' Stuart Staples -- and the band's strong handle on dynamics were a big part of it. There's just something visceral about it all that hits you at gut level.
The outfit took the stage as Neil Young's "On the Beach" played over the house system and kicked things off simply on "Start a War," with Berninger singing over dual guitar parts by twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Bryan Devendorf then began steadily thumping on the bass drum, and over the next few minutes, the song built slowly, peaked, then dissolved back into where it began.
While it's those builds of intensity where the National shine, especially on songs like "Slow Show," the five-piece and its two horn players also injected steady currents of energy into cuts like "Mistaken for Strangers" and "Bloodbuzz Ohio." On "Squalor Victoria," the band pretty much exploded, with Berninger belting out words over distorted guitars, trumpet and trombone, and the players attacked "Afraid of Everyone" with similar fervor.
While Berninger prefaced "Conversation 16" by saying it was for married people, one of the Dessners dedicated the tune to three guys he met at a nearby Japanese restaurant. One of the guys was evidently having an allergic reaction to truffle fries he'd eaten earlier that night and was having trouble breathing. "He didn't die," though, he reassured the audience. "He's okay."
While most of the set was made of made up of tunes from the National's latest effort, High Violet and 2007's Boxer, the group offered up an intense take on "Abel," from 2005's Alligator, before slowing things down considerably on "Daughters of the SoHo Riots."
Before closing the set with "Fake Empire," Berninger dedicated the tune to Brandon Reid, who came on board as sound engineer around the time Alligator came out. "That's when people started coming to our shows," he pointed out.
The band came back for a pair of encore tunes from Alligator. During "Terrible Love," Berninger made his way through the middle of the crowd while singing as the song built up to a noisy, joyous climax. In what made for an absolutely gorgeous show-closer, all seven musicians stood together for a completely acoustic take of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks." The acoustic guitars weren't plugged in, and there weren't microphones on the vocals or horns, but it was a totally organic experience with the crowd singing along (see MerrySwankster clip below).
Click through for Critic's Notebook and Setlist.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: While the National has been at it for over a decade, it's not surprising that these guys are finally filling up places like the Fillmore on the strength of shows like this. They often get tagged as being dark and somber, but this show was pretty fucking joyous. Random detail: Brazos drove fourteen hours from Austin to open the show. By the way: The last time the National played the area was with R.E.M. at Red Rocks two years ago.
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The National 10.18.10 | Fillmore Auditorium Denver, CO.
01. Start a War 02. Anyone's Ghost 03. Mistaken for Strangers 04. Bloodbuzz Ohio 05. Slow Show 06. Squalor Victoria 07. Afraid of Everyone 08. Brainy 09. Conversation 16 10. Apartment Story 11. Abel 12. Daughters of the SoHo Riots 13. England 14. Fake Empire
15. All the Wine 16. Mr. November 17. Terrible Love 18. Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks