26 February 2008

The National @ BAM Howard Gilman Opera House - 23 February 2008

Having the opportunity to see a rock concert in a venue as special as the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House is a rare treat. Generally, modern rock bands are relegated to the confines of various banged up ballrooms (at best) and/or basement bars (or worse) in this city. While abundant in character and rock and roll charm, these standard kinds of venues lack quite a bit in terms of mood-setting ambiance and happy acoustics. However, these characteristics are precisely where opera houses excel. Given that Boxer was perhaps my favorite album released last year, it should come as no surprise that I headed into Saturday night's performance by The National with great hopes, expectations, and anticipation. Just what, exactly, would such a glorious venue do for one of my favorite current American rock bands, and how would The National treat the opera house in return?

My Brightest Diamond (led by/aka Shana Worden) opened the show with her unique blend of cabaret, chamber music, rock, and opera influence. Though she's no stranger to the NY music scene (honing her chops over the past few years on stages throughout the city, and previously finding work as a backup vocalist for Sufjan Stevens) this was my first time seeing her in person. During the opening songs she had me thinking of Edith Piaf (vocals), Antony Hegarty (vocals), Lindsey Buckingham (guitar), PJ Harvey (guitar), and Roy Orbison (hair/vocals); but by the end of her set all I could think of was of how much I needed to see this woman/band perform again. The contrast of the string quartet arrangements, soaring vocals, and delicate-rocking-diving-detuned guitar work was quite the perfect way to set the scene at the BAM Opera House for The National to take the stage. And thank goodness for that, because as good as My Brightest Diamond was on that night, all we all really wanted was The National. Badly.

Against a shiny Vegasesque backdrop, and to the tune of Bon Iver's excellent song "Flume", the band took to the stage with a small orchestra in tow. I expected the accompaniment, but still found myself supremely pleased when I saw the trumpet, bassoon, flute, violin, cello, saxophone, piano, and two trombones. For this meant that The National meant business. And that they did.

The show began with "Start a War", a perfectly building opener, and continued through song after song from the band's two most recent (most outstanding) albums, Boxer and Alligator. In fact, the entire set list was comprised of songs from these two records, save two cuts from Cherry Tree and one brand new song. As I listen to 19 of the 20 songs right now, in the order they played them that night, it strikes me how well thought out this set list was. Like anything worth enjoying, the songs put together in this order create a mood that slowly builds up, gloriously falls apart, and then rebuilds itself again and again multiple times. It was a magnificent concert.

In person there were two very distinct moments that stood out: the series of songs from "Secret Meeting" to "Mistaken for Strangers" to "Squalor Victoria" to "Abel" (a sequence which had me smiling the rarest of concert smiles - my "I'm seeing Morrissey" smile), and the first encore which saw lead singer Matt Berninger venture out into the middle of the audience for the chorus of "Mr. November". It's not an exaggeration to say that the show gave me chills once or twice. And the sound? Oh the sound! The whole thing felt like all of those times I've found myself watching a concert film and wishing that I was fortunate enough to be one of the lucky few who got to see the recorded show live, in person. The magnitude of excellence was not lost on me.

The audience was the only thing that marred the show at all, sometimes with their sceneyness (including some girls behind me critiquing female audience members' fashion during the show), sometimes because of their collective body odor, sometimes because of "witty" repartee ("Freebird!" and "Brooklyn!" among the standout shout-outs), but mostly because of all of the clapping along to the songs. I'll save you my extended and annoyed ranting on the subject, save for a single question. Question: do you ever feel like a rhythmically challenged deaf monkey when you clap along to songs at a concert? Because you look and sound like precisely that. Regardless, no amount of annoying audience behavior could do anything to ruin this show. And after all, most of what I found annoying from other people was a result of fandom. A fanatical response to the greatness of the musicians on stage. Can't really knock that. On this night the band had people moving, singing, shouting, and clapping along - the old man across the aisle seemingly moved to tears even (though I think that was because he twisted his knee "dancing") - doing whatever we could to somehow reflect our adoration for the performance. To let the band know how much we approved. Something about the look on each of their faces tells me that they knew.

The National is one of those rare bands with the power to both touch you with their words and move you with their playing. They can floor you with gentle beauty at one moment and rouse you out of your seat with anthemic emoting the next. For all of you people across the US wondering if you should consider seeing The National open up for R.E.M., don't make the mistake of missing out when they come to your part of the world. This past Saturday night the band was given the rare opportunity to grace the stage at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, and in return they gave each of us in attendance a glimpse at The National at their very best. They had us all up, out of our seats, and in the palm of their collective hand. We'd have taken ten encores if they would've given them.

Set list:
Start a War
Brainy
Baby, We’ll Be Fine
Slow Show
Secret Meeting
Mistaken for Strangers
Squalor Victoria
Abel
Wasp Nest
Racing like a Pro
Ada (feat. Sufjan Stevens)
Apartment Story
unknown NEW song
Green Gloves
Fake Empire
--
City Middle
Mr. November
Daughters of the Soho Riots
--
Gospel
About Today

Listen:
"Something Of An End" by My Brightest Diamond
"Wasp Nest" by The National

See The National live - tour dates HERE.

Visit The National on MySpace.

Download The National's performance at BAM on the 22nd of February over on NYCTaper.

*above image from HERE.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love your blog, but...

Jesus Christ, CLAPPING is "annoying audience behavior?" God forbid people enjoy themselves. You're criticizing women for picking on outfits, and then you mock people for CLAPPING? I'm sorry but I don't think those women are the ones with the scenester attitude!

Not to mention the fact that when people don't clap and dance at shows, they get criticized for being a typical hipper-than-thou NYC crowd.

Damned if you do...

Matt said...

I'd like to clarify two things, which are in effect the same thing:

- talking loudly during songs about what other people are wearing bothers me because I like to listen to the band and not to red carpet commentary. if people would like to emulate Melissa Rivers in public then I suggest trying sitting on a bench at a mall.

- clapping... clapping, you know, DURING songs? people waiting for any and every moment to clap along as an audience "with the beat" excepting that the entire audience never is actually "with" it and thus their clapping inevitably devolves in a matter of a few measures to noise and then nothing. if you're going to stop clapping so soon after you start, why start to begin with?? ultimately, i'd rather hear the band than my audience neighbors' hands slapping together in impossibly shifting time signatures.

but like i said in the post - i don't want to complain too much about this stuff. i love fandom. there's just something to be said for finding ways to exude enjoyment that don't interfere with the experience for everyone else.

Anonymous said...

agree that people shouldn't feel guilty about showing their appreciation for a band by clapping. I find myself singing along (though i do try tone it down so that it's really only me who hears myself) just because that's how i relate to a band. Being able to sing to a tune is what it's all about for me. Worse than clapping, we had two girls next to us who sat through the whole show and gossiped ... the entire time!! What the hell were they doing there in the first place?
Matt does hit the nail on the head about some things though - why do Hipsters persist in not bathing or at least wearing Deo?
I think at the end of the day, having a Rock Band at a working Opera House is bound to lead to varied expectations of crowd decorum.

Matt said...

okay, last attempt at clarification before I shut up.

I'm sorry I didn't make myself completely clear in the review but I'm not talking about applause. I'm referring to audience members taking it upon themselves to suddenly join the band's rhythm section by clapping. It never sounds good and can often overtake what's coming from the stage and... oh never mind.

It's just a pet peeve of mine. I can handle it happening now and then during a show but it happened during (seemingly) 10 songs on Sat night. The one thing that sounded bad in the opera house that night was the audience. That's all.

Jo said...

Sounds wonderful Matt, your words made it come to life, especially you Morrissey smile description!!

Anonymous 4:15 said...

OK, I get your point about how it is annoying when people can't clap *along with the rhythm.* As someone who's been playing music for 24 years, that's like nails on a chalkboard to me.

I'm glad you linked to your old pet peeves post - I had forgotten about that, and how much it made me laugh. I was DEBILITATED by some guy's BO at the Final Fantasy show in November. Seriously, everyone within a 10 foot radius had their hands over their noses/mouths. It smelled like a homeless person had died in there. I felt like it was really inconsiderate, and that it interfered with my ability to enjoy the show.

Finally, I feel like guys are too quick to dismiss women as "bitches" when they complain about "the tall dude." I'm a woman and I'm only 5'6". If I want a good view (as opposed to space to dance), I get there 45/60/90 minutes early to stake out my spot. When some tall dude shoves his way in front of me just as the band takes the stage, yeah I am going to complain about it! That doesn't make me a bitch, and I'm not complaining about genetics. I love tall dudes. I just don't love tall dudes with *no manners.*

But I must say a big THANK YOU for being a considerate tall guy. Whenever I see a tall guy standing up against a pillar, I want to run up and hug him. :)

Anonymous said...

i agree with matt, the bitches come in to play when the tall guy gets to the show at a decent time, claims his spot next to the wall, or very close, then a short girl saunters up behind him and complains mid-show that she can't see. and what do you expect to happen? the crowd to part like the sea for moses?!

i know this happens because i am married to a tall guy and i am witness to this ALL the time.

also, my good spot at a show is often sacrificed because i am married to said tall guy and he makes us stand in the corner or in back because he is so conscious of the short ladies in the world.

mom said...

well written. glad you listened to me.

nyctaper said...

Nice review Matt. As always, your words speak volumes.

Anonymous 4:15 said...

All of my girlfriends are a lot shorter than me, and they never complain about the tall guy who was there BEFORE us. If we can't see over the head of someone who was there first, we find another place to stand. Duh! Just because we say "I can't see, can you?" doesn't mean we're complaining - we're stating a fact and then MOVING.

Also, I don't see why you can't just ask the tall dude nicely, if you can stand in front of him, as long as he can see over your head. 8/10 times they will be very gracious and say yes.

I don't think this is a "short bitches" vs "tall dudes" thing. It's a common courtesy / not having a ridiculous sense of entitlement thing.

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