Live Review: The National Converts to Arena Mode at Bill Graham Civic
Matt Smith The National at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on Saturday night.
Dec. 3, 2011
Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
Better than: Seeing any other American rock band.
"Anyone got extras? [To his partner] Hey, whatcha got?"
"Just a hard dick and some bubblegum."
Two scalpers provided the above graphic introduction to Saturday night's show, shouting to each other for updates on the corner at Grove and Larkin, just outside Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Clearly they didn't really know who was performing: These gentlemen would need good luck to find anyone willing to part with a ticket for The National -- a chance to catch the best band in the country.
It's easy to forget how good the National is on nights you don't get the honor of seeing the band. Bon Iver is now grabbing Grammy headlines, a year after Arcade Fire did the same. The Black Keys are blowing up everyone's year-end lists (and they killed it on SNL again this weekend). The National might not be getting the same level of exposure (of course it has the oldest recent release of that group), but its music is every bit as transcendent. Last year's High Violet helped the National earn the recognition the band has deserved for years, and opened its music up to new audiences. Now, the National has become a big arena headliner -- not simply the best act on the bill.
This was the setup for Saturday. Although Bill Graham can hold a lot of people, it only needed all that space when the National's 9:40 p.m. start time rolled around. Those who came early caught strong performances by Wye Oak and Local Natives, but the show felt different as soon as the live video of The National walking out from backstage hit the projector. There was a sense of importance -- and The National validated people's expectations. The band tore through 90 minutes of music spanning its catalog, playing nearly all of High Violet and every crowd favorite off Boxer and Alligator. The band even found room in its set for songs like "Son," from the 2001 self-titled debut, and the one-off "Think You Can Wait" from the Win Win soundtrack.
Between acts on Saturday, the PA played songs from Neil Young, Tom Petty, and Fleetwood Mac, and maybe those the best comparisons for what the National delivers. No one today makes music quite like this -- intricately written rock with the right blend of grandiosity and drive. The lyrics deal with modern life and situations, but touch on themes that speak to people no matter their age or musical preference (loss, youth, finding your place in a city, etc.). The crowd Saturday certainly reflected this, including stereotypical young twentysomethings as well as elderly couples dressed in their Saturday best (think Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in terms of demographics represented, but more evenly spread out).
Still, the band wasn't without fault. Its current level of popularity forced the National to do some things that didn't play to its strengths: It was odd to watch LED lights flash brightly while Matt Berninger sang about about a failing, empty relationship ("Anyone's Ghost"). It was slightly less satisfying that Berninger had to shout rather than mutter, "This isn't working, you, my middlebrow fuck-up" at the end of "Squalor Victoria" because the levels were at huge-arena heights. These big-concert trappings detracted from the show, taking away focus from The National's level of musicianship, the intensity of the performance, and the depth of the songs.