Contributed by Erin Routson
Out of the week-long residency the National spent at the Beacon, this was the show I most wanted to be present for, in order to see Sharon Van Etten. (And, crossing my fingers that they’d bring her out to do “Think You Can Wait.”) Earlier in the day I tweeted about the over/under on me crying during the show, knowing that I was going to see two acts I really love by myself, a perfect set-up for tears.
I got to the Beacon early, even though it was assigned seating. The crowd was totally not what I expected, so many couples and so many pairs of bros. I don’t know what it is about the National; I have a very specific view of who I think listens to them, people who shop for well-tailored clothes, people whose interests tip toward the literary, people who find themselves unsatisfied with their white-collar jobs and drown it all in small-batch bourbon. I guess I’m wrong about that, or I guess that is a very small sect of an audience that, like I said, is full of bros.
There’s nothing wrong with bros, I guess, as long as they’re not committing sexual assault or objectifying me at a bar. Maybe I am a bro – two of the things I love the most are the NBA and this band. More or less, I was just surprised how many would come out of the woodwork to see a band that has less in common with OAR and more in common with T.S. Eliot, at least in my mind.
Sharon Van Etten took the stage to a not-full crowd (bros aren’t down with Sharon, yet) and opened with “Love More”; whoever bet that I would cry was right within a few minutes. At this point the people in the seats next to me hadn’t arrived, so I was free to let it all out to a woman’s voice that I find truly haunting and amazing. I’m a sucker for voices. Time and Temperature, Elephant Micah: their voices are two of my favorites and SVE is right up there with them. Moving through “One Day”, “Save Yourself” to “Don’t Do It”, what I’d consider one of the saddest songs ever written, the backing band laid the perfect groundwork for her powerful yet plaintive voice.
From there she shredded through “Peace Signs” and then into new material, Aaron Dessner joining her for an apprehensive and incisive version of “Serpents”, which definitely has a sound that borders on what the National do with their own work on High Violet. While its clear that performing still makes SVE a little nervous between songs as she awkwardly banters, she has no trouble fully immersing herself in performing her work. She knows how to feel what she is doing and it is one of the things that make her songs so easy to fall into. Those who got to the show too late to see this honestly missed something that I imagine will grow and only get better.
By the time the National’s pre-show music was going full-tilt, all of the bros and their girlfriends had arrived. I knew that any crying I would do publicly was over; I also knew that there are really only a handful of their songs that would get it out of me and most are never done live. The pictured screen went up during “Wild Boys” and for some reason I was convinced that it was the music they would take the stage to which I found really endearing. It wasn’t. Something else started up after it. Eventually the Ohio-bred gentlemen took the stage and opened up with “Start A War.”
The set was heavy on High Violet material, but “Boxer,” “Alligator,” “Cherry Tree” and new songs were all represented. For quite a few of the songs, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) took the stage to sing vocals and play some guitar. Friends who had attended Monday’s show with the War on Drugs said that wasn’t the case for them: Tuesday night bonus! While I’d love to outline each individual song, that would take forever; it was a long set, but one I could’ve stayed hours for.
“Bloodbuzz Ohio” is not my favorite off of High Violet, but it seems to be like “Float On” for Modest Mouse: it gets everyone going when it’s done live. The momentum of the song lends itself to live performance, and the bros do love a singalong. A difference between this and the last time I saw them was the projection screen and intense lighting that accompanied each song. They’ve also gone the route of video of the band from the stage, something that reminded me of what Radiohead began doing at their shows a few years ago.
Matt Berninger’s voice is why I got into the National in the first place. Years ago a friend and I were discussing music and I mentioned that I like “weird” voices, and he insisted I listen to Boxer. I’ve been hooked ever since. (Though Tom Waits has never melted my icy heart.) One thing I will never get used to, though, no matter how many times I see this band, is Berninger’s proclivity to bark some of his lyrics. It started in “Squalor Victoria” and of course carried through to “Mr. November.” Hearing it, to me, hurts, like a pack of Dobermans piercing your eardrums when provoked.
As I dreamed, Sharon Van Etten came out to do “Think You Can Wait”, but it wasn’t as powerful as I thought it would be for me live. Maybe it’s one that just belongs on my headphones late at night. “Anyone’s Ghost” ended up being the most memorable to me all night, which is one that had fallen off the radar for me; “Afraid of Everyone” and “Lemonworld” were in much heavier rotation when I was listening to High Violet non-stop. A pleasant, sad, neurotic surprise, nonetheless.
The encore consisted of the SVE performance, “Fake Empire” (live horns will never cease to bring a smile to my face), “Terrible Love” with Annie Clark, and an acoustic singalong version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” for which everyone, SVE and Annie Clark included, took the stage. Hearing the whole crowd join in to sing was a weird, wonderful summer camp moment, even in the fake-cold of December that was outside the walls. The melancholy of a song I’d never hesitate to call a soul-destroyer was broken up by some random dude entering early with his cry of “CHANDELIERS!”, sending everyone in the crowd into a short burst of giggling.
Bro vibes aside, the National’s lyrics end up sounding like an uneasy, dark reinterpretation of “Once In a Lifetime” paired with anxiety-threaded, pounding-like-a-nervous-heart instrumentation. I feel too close to what they are revealing, sometimes. I feel like they’re blowing my cover by broadcasting thoughts I have about achievement, love, and being from where I am. Maybe that bro was right to break up the tension and sadness of the encore with his outburst. Maybe it’s true – you have to laugh so you don’t cry.