The National at the Hollywood Bowl: Concert Review

Keith Klenowski
From left: Aaron Dessner, Bryan Devendorf, Matt Berninger, Scott Devendorf, Bryce Dessner
"Please, sirs, we want some more."

People who love to keep their cult bands cult may have found themselves slightly depressed after The National’s rousing show at the Hollywood Bowl Sunday night. A moment signifying that the band is finally crossing over from revered indie rockers to Joy Division or Roxy Music status with smart art rock that soars above homogenized indie mediocrity to impart haunting resonance. The devotees among us have to wonder: now will they go all U2 on us and become pop stars? Will “finding their audience” find them diluted?

Following opening sets by similarly intentionally culty opening acts Sharon van Etton and Neko Case --  all falling into that indie “high of the low” sound and sensibility -- the band performed swifty and deftly at the famed outdoor amphitheater, creating aural swirls and building energy with a well thought-out set and video so beautifully bleak it could have all been shot by Anton Corbijn. The National’s fifth album, 2010’s High Violet, doesn’t have a clunker in the crop, and they stuck to their loyal crowd's favorites: “Runaway,” “Anyone’s Ghost,” “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Afraid of Everyone,” “Conversation 16” (the lyric “it’s a Hollywood summer / You can’t imagine the shitty thoughts I’ve had” got an aptly welcome response), “Sorrow,” “England” and “Terrible Love.”

Peppering the set with “Think You Can Wait” and older songs from 2005’s Alligator and 2007’s Boxer, their cadre of guest stars were nothing short of impressive, while also complete appropriate to the songs they played on: St. Vincent, van Etton and The Calder Quartet. Sadly, favorite “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” meant to be the show closer, was cut due to time (singer Matt Berninger held up a clock when curfew was upon them).

What loyalists revere in The National is that they’ve have opened for Arcade Fire and written songs for movies like Win Win (“Think You Can Wait”) and now Warrior (“About Today”), but the Brooklyn-based band made up of singer/songwriter Berninger and two sets of brothers -- Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and Scott and Bryan Devendorf -- have not made even the slightest move toward selling out. Not that they couldn’t. Not only are they not overexposed -- they’re barely exposed, outside of the KCRW-loving kind of serious music afficionados.

But that will change, whether they -- or we -- like it or not, as their beautifully-lit and powerful set showed them to be a band that could -- and will -- soon be selling out arenas. By the last 30 minutes, half the Bowl was on its feet. Sure, the full moon helped, but the whole high of the low aesthetic also has a weirdly uplifting effect. Catharsis, perhaps? Those of us who experienced eighties tunes on the first go-round know just how warm and fuzzy depressing music can be -- when it’s done right. In that sense, The National seem in all ways British, even singing odes to Great Britain ("England"), conjuring images of the boys playing along to New Order and Oasis while growing up in Ohio.

Indeed, Berninger’s emotional but introverted theatrics -- hovering over the mike like a hungry hawk, lifting his arms in the arm like he might take flight, singing on his knees -- do conjure up images of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, and if The National were some shoddy JD tribute band, these would considered shticky moves. That haunted demonized singer thing can’t be carried off unless the music, lyrics and one strange monotone pull it off -- and when Berninger exploded into screams and rants (which he never does on the recordings), you could feel genuine anger -- how someone smart, shy and serious feels stuck in an overtly commercialized sell-out world, not just of music, but of everything. Like the song says: “No one he’s afraid of everything.”

It’s gratifying to know that songs so sad, layered and well-wrought can be delivered live, with longer intros and improvisation, even more musicianship, and a confident set structure adding even more value to the price of admission. This is one of the best live acts out there, and they’re proving it on a nightly basis. Now can they make that leap to stadiums without risking going milquetoast mainstream? We can only hope that the National will go all Grammy-winning Arcade Fire on us. They deserve to.

Set List:

Anyone's Ghost 
Bloodbuzz Ohio
Slow Show
Squalor Victoria
Afraid Of Everyone
Conversation 16 
Cardinal Song
Fake Empire
Think You Can Wait
Mr. November
Terrible Love
About Today