“We’ve always wanted to play here”, Bryce Dessner said, looking up at the Paramount’s marvelous ceilings, “and every time, there’s been a musical, or another show. We’re glad we finally get to play here”. It is quite surprising that this Thursday night was indeed the first time The National appeared at the Paramount. Last time around, on their tour in support of their universally acclaimed 2010 LP High Violet, they played a very sold out gig at the Neptune Theater. This year, with the release of Trouble Will Find Me the National return to Seattle with opportunity to put their full colors on display – back to back nights at one of the city’s most beautiful venues. And Thursday night, in front of a packed house, the National put on a spectacle of a show. Emotionally consuming and aurally encompassing, their definitive indie rock sound – the same one that has helped lead the genre for more than a decade – brought the house down and left not a soul unaffected. Together with an excellent set from Scottish indie rock group Frightened Rabbit, the first half of the National’s short Seattle residency went off with a bang.
Opening the night with a headline-worthy set of their own, Frightened Rabbit stretched out our heartstrings a bit before the National strung us up by them. It’s only been a couple months since we’ve seen the Hutchinsons and their mates in our fair city. They played one of the best gigs they’ve played all year (in their own words) at Capital Hill Block Party. There, the caveman drums and Scott Hutchinson’s emotional fireworks display brought hordes of people towards the main stage for a killer set. Here, things weren’t terribly different. From top to bottom, and with or without familiarity with the band, the Paramount received Frightened Rabbit with open arms. With plenty of material from their 2013 release Pedestrian Verse as well as old, their jam packed 45 minute set felt perfectly put together. Ending with the brutal majesty of “Acts of Man”, Frightened Rabbit exited to thunderous applause and delightful anticipation.
Abstract anticipation became a present reality Thursday when a massive screen set at the back of the Paramount stage lit up, showing a real time camera feed of the band back stage. There, as the Dessners talked with local fan Ben Gibbard and Matt paced to and fro past the Devendorf brothers, the crowd lit up with excitement. Finally, talking ceased and the camera followed the band down the Paramount’s endless winding stairs to the curtain, where the camera went black. Then, quietly with a wave, The National entered the Paramount stage and prepped for their set. A two-piece horn section took stage right in the back, while Bryan and Scott huddled mid-ground stage right and Aaron and Bryce both took one side of the foreground. In a lot of ways, the National is like a piece of architecture, with each layer working in perfect sync with all of its members. The Devendorfs provide the National’s unshakable foundation, while the Dessners hold up the roof with layers of guitar fill. Then Matt is the icing on the cake with a cherry on top that screams out “My mind’s not right!” and throws the microphone stand around then pours himself another sip of white wine. Together, the National build one of the sturdiest structures in indie rock, and as the band began with “I Should Live In Salt”, it’s evident from the very first note they play.
The National are a really classic group in a lot of ways. Not because they are dated or because they are losing their edge by any means, but because they move together and work together like a true rock and roll band. Scott and Bryan groove together like there’s no tomorrow, each one playing off of the bricks laid down one by one in a row by the other. Bryce and Aaron maintain a geographical independence, each bringing a layer of guitar to the equation in different ways, but in a series of glances and nods and breathing and moving together, they work like two peas in a pod, creating the intense layer of sound and beauty that makes up the body of the National’s sound. Then with the added horn parts, you’ve got a wall of sound. Sure, they played their parts off the record for tracks like “Fake Empire”, “Runaway”, “England”, “Slipped”, but with a complimentary arrangement written to nearly every track, the horns added a ton of body to the National’s presence on stage, and if the tunes at hand weren’t overpowering enough as is, these renditions brought you to your knees.
“Stand up straight at the foot of your love”, Matt Berninger begins the band’s High Violet international hit “Bloodbuzz Ohio”. His basso profundo makes him sound like has a permanent cold – the fact that he actually has one tonight doesn’t falter a single note. A quiet vibrato and an unwavering conviction to every single word, Berninger is a force to be reckoned with onstage. Between songs, he banters politely like any other moderately shy frontman. But when the music begins, he transcends into his own world where every emotion is expressed and elevated to unfathomable levels. The result is an explosive and perilous mixture. On the band’s well-loved 2007 LP Boxer, “Squalor Victoria” ends with a unsettling whimper. But when Berninger utters “this isn’t working” onstage, it’s with a bang. Screaming “Squalor Victoria” into the microphone before throwing the microphone stand into the photo pit (thankfully, photographer-less at this point) and sending the microphone through the air at gratuitous speed, the song became an entirely different beast, and if you didn’t find your breath tighten a bit at that last note, you weren’t there. Then, without a word, he returned to the simple wine glass on the ground, took a moment to compose himself, and turned back to the crowd. This process is song to song for Matt. No song is sung without a new thought towards it – you can see the souring introspection on his face. It’s honestly one of the most convicting live performances this observer had ever seen. When the crowd went home later that night, I’m sure they returned to the band’s records with a new perspective from which to approach it.
But the intensity of the set was perfectly balanced by scattered moments of lightness and beautiful melancholy. The playful lover’s proclamation of “Slow Show”, the brutal confrontation of Cherry Tree cut “About Today”, and the incomparable vulnerability of “I Need My Girl” – they all show a unique side of the National, both lyrically and musically. The catalogue that this band has amassed is diverse and powerful, and taking in all of their best in one evening is a heavy burden to take on. Some cuts, the band’s conviction completely overtook the crowd – Trouble Will Find Me’s heart-breaking “Pink Rabbits” and High Violet’s valiant “Sorrow” in particular. But every time they broke you down, they just picked you back up again. The massive passion and thoughtful, weather-worn expression of joy found in this band are without peer. The National are in a league of their own.
For their encore, the National surprised near everyone in the audience with a cover of “Learning” by Seattle’s own Perfume Genius. The quiet, piano driven track became a passionate wonder in their hands and did the track more than a bit of justice. After that, it was time close out the night with a back to back slice of brilliance. As the band started in on Alligator all-time classic “Mr. November”, Matt jumped into the crowd and left out the stage right exit wandering around the crowds singing the song completely out of view of most people in the venue. On stage, the rest of the National turned inward, playing this long time fan favorite to each other with grace and ease. As Matt made his way back, Bryce Dessner started in on an intro that pretty much every the National fan recognizes within half a second. Even on your 500th listen, “Terrible Love” remains a brilliantly impactful explosion of love and fear. For this one, Matt hopped the barrier into the crowd and sang the explosive cut directly into the face of anyone who could match his intensity. Finally, as he reached that infamous line “It takes an ocean not to break”, he fell to his knees in the middle of a horde of fans and sang the bit with his face to the ground. A powerful moment if there ever was one, the National cut the power and waited as Matt found his way back up on stage. Then armed with an unplugged acoustic guitar, sleigh bells, and their own voices off microphone, the National led a singalong of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” to end the evening.
The National are known for their live show and there is no question as to why. With hearts on their sleeves and a brutal realization of their own humanity, the National remain a stalwart of the indie rock scene, and they will be as long as they desire to be. If you haven’t already, grab Trouble Will Find Me, out on 4AD Records now. Catch more pictures below.