Published Jun 10, 2010Touring the record, the combo stopped by Toronto's legendary yet intimate Horseshoe Tavern twice within a handful of months. The first show barely drew a crowd; things were better the second time around. Five years and two more masterpieces later, the band filled the much larger Massey Hall twice in a row.
Night two began with the cheekily apposite "Start a War." Bookended by unmistakable guitar riffs, spurred on by mallet-ed drums, invigorated by incisive strings and centred on Matt Berninger's smoky baritone, it, like all National songs, was a sum of its carefully crafted constituent parts.
Musical ninjas, the National built each track incrementally, each almost imperceptibly gaining momentum. "Conversation 16" grew from a piano ballad into a towering, intricate and deceptively beautiful meditation on eating brains (well, sort of). "England" added strings and smoke, before taking off on a horn-driven jaunt. And throwback "Available" clobbered its the Edge-aping guitars with Berninger's pained, eloquent yelps of "dress me down and liquor me up."
While Berninger's lyrical vignettes took the fore, the music largely set the tone, turning songs about pissing in sinks (see "Karen") into tender remembrances rather than lurid, boozy tales. Whether it was militaristic drumming on "Baby We'll Be Fine," a huge trumpet on "Slow Show," the slow-coming piano on "Squalor Victoria," or the strolling guitar on "The Geese of Beverly Road," each element was painstakingly rendered but seamlessly delivered.
Nevertheless, it was Berninger's words that had the crowd screaming along with him. It's not often that a stately venue sees scores of punters yelling, in unison, "I won't fuck us over" (see "Mr. November") or "my mind's not right" (see "Abel").
The singer's knack for wry observations and atypical turns of phrase forges a type of everyman poetry that's naturally infectious and widely resonant. Thus, it was fitting that he literally went to the people, sporadically ending up in the crowd, traipsing over chairs, reaching for the balcony or disappearing down the concourse.
Naming your band the National either dooms it to ironic anonymity or primes it for mass consumption. Opaque arrangements, inclusive poetics, one of the best drummers in rock, and a wholly entrancing, inspiring and thrilling live show have thankfully spirited it to the latter.