Chills and Spills–The National at the Wiltern 5/22

May 24th, 2010 in Music

Photo courtesy of Greg Lawler

We rendezvoused in Hollywood this past Saturday at the Wiltern Theater to see one of our faves, The National.  Once again the band and its deliverances demolished our expectations.  Singer Matt Berninger, the multi-talented sets of Dessner and Devendorf brothers, two horn players, and violinist/keyboardist Padma Newsome sauntered onto the stage with backdrop of moody, monochromatic lighting that perfectly fit the songs and band.

We have been listening to their new album, High Violet, nonstop since its release earlier this month, and are happy to report that these new songs made the show for us.  High Violet is the record of the year thus far and, as with most of their prior records, the depth and power of these songs continues to grow with each listen.

The National kicked off Saturday night’s show with Start a War and Mistaken for Strangers off of their prior, standard-setting Boxer album.  With double-horn and keys accompaniment, the sound was full and organic, and the band was striding a great mood.  Matt had his usual wine bucket and white wine in hand, and off we went for the National ride.

The show really began ti kick in with Bloodbuzz Ohio and Afraid of Everyone off High Violet.  Berninger’s repeated refrain in Bloodbuzz of  “I still owe money to the money, to the money I owe” captures both the current distressed zeitgeist, but also our nostalgia for less doleful times and and acknowledgment that we can’t sufficiently pay back what we owe to our blood and other deliverers.  “The floors are falling out from everybody I know.”  Indeed.  Too many have fallen.  And everyone felt it at the Wiltern.

High Violet was recorded with an impressive supporting cast (Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Newsome to name but a few), and throughout their set on Saturday, you could intermittently hear how the High Violet songs and delivery had been affected.  This was first heard on Afraid of Everyone during which the band has added high, mournful, spectre-ish vocals, which may have been borrowed from the band’s prior collaborations with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (on the stellar charity-fundraiser record from last year, Dark Was the Night, and elsewhere).   The plaintive-vocal effect grabs you by the heart and can be heard throughout High Violet (e.g. on Terrible Love at 2:45, on Conversation 16 at :41, and Sorrow at 2:25, and on England).  Beyond those ghost-train vocals, the first ecstatic high of the evening came towards the end of Afraid of Everyone when Berninger added sibilant syncopation to powerful effect via the lyrics:

“Your voices all in my soul soul soul soul
Your voice is swallowin’ my soul soul soul soul
Your voices swallowin’ my soul soul soul soul
Soul soul soul soul soul soul soul soul soul soul”

Chills.  And more chills.

Then it was back to a bevy of Boxer beauties (including Squalor Victoria which was introduced by Matt as almost resulting in a career-ending travesty the night before), followed by more highs from High Violet, including one of our prime picks, Conversation 16. In this song the chorus insidiously intrigues: “I was afraid I’d eat your brains, I was afraid, I’d eat your brains, ‘Cause I’m evil, ‘Cause I’m evil.”  And interspersed is the alternately frightening and hilarious: “I’m a confident liar, had my head in the oven so you’d know where I’ll be, I’ll try to be more romantic.”  How could he be more romantic, we ask you!?  Afterwards, Berninger confirmed earlier reports and marveled that his wife had helped write the lyrics despite the subject matter.  At the Wiltern, the crowd screamed the chorus with vigor.  And it made us hope that the gang had not missed Matt’s intent:  an acknowledgment and lament for the darkness within.  We remain concerned that many of the attendees read it instead as a boastful platform.  The world deserves better.

After Conversation 16, it was back to the Boxer bailiwick for the well-wrought Apartment Story and Green Gloves before going deep for the always-enjoyable aggression found in the delivery and crowd-participation on Abel.   Sorrow and the mighty England followed from High Violet, before the band ended the set with the assured, heartening masterpiece, Fake Empire.

In between all of these fine deliveries Matt continued to brandish his always-full wine glass, with progressive aggression aimed towards the bottle and ice bucket, ultimately leading to the spilling of the bucket, and ice and water strewn over the stage, making for dicey footing and peevish looks from other band members.  Despite the challenge, the band and Matt managed to navigate the float and flow well through to the finale.

The encore was majestic and featured three of High Violet’s strongest songs (Runaway-on which the horns sang with abandon, Lemonworld and Terrible Love), interrupted with the obligatory, anthemic wonder, Mr. November. The last time we saw The National at the Wiltern, Berninger came out into the crowd and tight-rope-walked a wall to exhort the crowd, which responded in kind.  While this version couldn’t possibly match those heights, Matt gave it his all and then some, and the crowd roared on.  Not to be missed.  Berninger lives and dies these songs to great emotive effect.  The entire band takes the recorded songs way beyond.  Do whatever you have to do to catch this band live.  And see ’em soon, ’cause you never know.

Our one criticism was the glaring omission of two of our favorites from the night’s set:  All the Wine and Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks. We have seen the band on its last three tours and each time they have managed to omit their finest anthem, All the Wine, and its various hilarities.  And though we heard Vanderlyle last year, it is amongst their finest songs and was sorely missed.

Regardless, The National has established themselves as one of the great American bands live.  The next time they head out on tour, make sure that you’re in the audience and ready to get Nationalized.  You can thank us later.

To make up for the above-referenced omission, give a good, close listen to Afraid of Everyone and Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.

The National–Afraid of Everyone

[audio:|titles=05 Afraid of Everyone]

The National–Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks

[audio:|titles=11 Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks]


Photo courtesy of Greg Lawler

Wiltern Setlist:

1. Start a War
2. Mistaken For Strangers
3.  Anyone’s Ghost
4.  Bloodbuzz Ohio
5.  Afraid Of Everyone
6.  Brainy
7.  Baby, We’ll Be Fine
8.  Slow Show
9.  Squalor Victoria
10.  Little Faith
11. Conversation 16
12. Apartment Story
13. Green Gloves
14. Abel
15. Sorrow
16. England
17. Fake Empire


18. Runaway
19. Lemonworld
20. Mr. November
21. Terrible Love



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