In June of 2007 the National played the Duck Room here in St. Louis, a drafty, windowless, duck-themed basement at this city’s beloved Blueberry Hill burger joint. With its austerely gray atmosphere, it could easily be used to stage a performance of Endgame and generally caters to four types of artists: current indie bands on the rise; current indie bands treading water at best; once-mighty bands on a slow, pitiable decline; and Chuck Berry. There was no doubt at the time that the National belonged in that first category. Boxer had recently been released and was beginning to generate Album of the Year buzz, and plenty of people were quickly discovering that Alligator actually wasn’t the group’s debut LP.
A few years and another remarkable album later, this time High Violet, the National are unarguably one of indie’s leading bands, feted in The New York Times, blessed with the Michael Stipe seal of approval and commonly described as being on the cusp of “mainstream” success, whatever that term means in today’s mostly radio-less world. Though there was some pre-show pissing and moaning from at least one guy – few things in life compare to being cornered in a bathroom by someone ranting about the band playing a mid-sized club like the Pageant instead of a smaller, more personal venue – such griping is by now expected; every indie band whose listenership increases significantly will always have some myopic fans nostalgic for poorer days long gone.
The venues may have gotten larger, but the band’s live show has still managed to retain its intimate, visceral quality even as it has become more polished. Such was the case with the group’s most recent St. Louis performance, as the band drew from every LP except the oft-overlooked self-titled debut in their nearly 100-minute set. After a stately opening to “Runaway,” most of the songs that followed were louder and longer than their album versions. The two-man horn section of Kyle Resnick and Ben Lanz and multi-instrumentalist Padma Newsome boosted the sound considerably and complemented the Dessner/Devendorf brothers’ playing, with “Mistaken for Strangers” (dedicated to some dude named Ron), “Baby, We’ll Be Fine,” “Slow Show,” “The Geese of Beverly Road” and “Fake Empire” all closing with full-bodied instrumental sections. “Available” was given a harsh treatment appropriate for its subject matter, with Berninger of course screaming the closing lyrics over squalls of guitar noise, before the band segued into the closing verse of fellow Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers track “Cardinal Song;” Berninger also punctuated “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Squalor Victoria” and “Abel” with more yelling, precariously swinging the microphone stand in the air on that Alligator track. Elsewhere there was humorous stage banter about the singer’s newest nickname – Dick Jagger – and his wife being/not being a cannibal, a bit of palatable guitar-rock-god preening as one or both of the Dessners stepped out for a short guitar solo, Berninger wandering around the stage and a few classically gloomy National moments via “Sorrow” and “London.”
The band’s encore was brief – three songs – but thrillingly wild. After a faithful version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” that featured Newsome on violin, the band played the expected “Mr. November” – with Berninger roaming far from the stage, climbing on the railing, probably kicking a few drinks over, ending up in the pit and generally covering all corners of the Pageant except its parking lot – and ended with a blistering version of “Terrible Love,” the singer standing on the railing nearest to the pit and screaming as anonymous hands either pawed at him or, more civilly, made sure he didn’t fall off. Sure such antics are at least partly orchestrated and similar acts of showmanship will probably happen in the next city the band plays, but it was still cool as hell.
This ability to connect with an audience is what makes the National’s live show so captivating; like their albums, in concert the band is able to sincerely express the types of everyday highs and lows to which anyone can relate. No surprise then that the night’s atmosphere, sometimes something of a wild card given the Pageant’s cookie-cutter aesthetics, was subdued but not catatonic, with most of the crowd intent on listening to the songs and not talking through them, the occasional catcalls about what Berninger was drinking notwithstanding. It was as flawless of a performance as I’ve seen; there were no lulls, deadweight songs or mailed-in efforts, and the guys all played like they were a young band fighting damn hard for an audience and not a marquee act who had the crowd in its pocket from the onset. There’s no telling how many folks from that 2007 Duck Room show were in attendance, but if any of them skipped the National’s latest stop here with the conviction that a band isn’t worth following once its members aren’t setting up their own gear, it’s their loss. Certainly it’s a difficult task to exceed beyond-lofty expectations, but that’s exactly what the National did at the Pageant on this night.
[Photos: Yann Coatanéa]