Was it the Magic Stick’s recently upgraded sound system, a band-provided soundman, or a combination of intangibles? Unclear. But however it happened, the National sounded incredible at this show. It helps, of course, that they have actual songs. “Secret Meeting,” the kickoff to the band’s 2005 breakthrough Alligator, lost the acoustic ramble of its studio version in favor of a burbling new wave bass line and crisp snare, and on top of that rhythm Matt Berninger’s dour delivery traveled elsewhere, too; maybe it was the perfect sound, maybe it was something that was already there. But suddenly Berninger was Jim Kerr and The National were Simple Minds.
The comparison works. Simple Minds migrated from stylish post-punk to bright new wave pop, and it’s a trajectory you can hear in the National’s music, too. Their great trick live is to merge these velvety, occasionally sad sounds with aching indie rock (or Neil Young) guitar, and build on that until it all comes crashing into a chorus that prompts Berninger to claw at and climb his microphone stand like a young Bono.
Those moments of release were incredible, and came during the songs you’d expect them to. “Lit Up” and “Mr. November,” as well as Boxer material like “Fake Empire” and “Mistaken for Strangers.” But the National could’ve used a few more of them. The middle of their set was sodden, too weighed down by the group’s deliberate professionalism. At least two of their members sat for most of the show, and every time there was a break for some chatter from Berninger, his hushed tone was like the quiet mumble of NPR on a background radio.
And of course it’s that very tact, that very class, that makes the National a great band. But it became a detriment when they strung together too many of those well-constructed, but also well short of dynamic songs. Luckily we had those other moments to look forward to, the ones where Berninger started yelping or scratching at the stage lights while sheets of almost-feedbacking guitar washed over the capacity crowd of polite white people in their mid-twenties.
And that was the other surprise of the night. Not the crowd’s makeup – these people are right in the band’s demographic sweet spot, the kind who save their money for Volkswagens and stock their MP3 players with exactly the sort of sweeping indie rock The National make. (A guy waiting in line for the bathroom methodically worked the buttons on his iPhone.) No, that wasn’t the surprising thing. It was that the band had nearly filled the room on a Wednesday night. The crowd wasn’t made up of regular show goers. How can they be? They’re too busy saving for Volkswagens. But they’d paid their money and staked out their spots; one woman had even put her brand new National T on over her existing shirt. A red card, for sure. But she was there, and so were all her pleasant, patiently listening friends, late on a Wednesday night.
The National should be waiting by the phone for a call from a brand manager for a national ad campaign. Their shit’s going to sound incredible as the soundtrack to one of those moving money pictures.
— Johnny Loftus
[tags]Live Show, The National, Detroit, Magic Stick[/tags]