The National / Neko Case Air Canada Centre, Toronto ON December 9

The National / Neko Case Air Canada Centre, Toronto ON December 9
Cozier than its full-court counterpart, the trimmed-down theatre version of the Air Canada Centre still has plenty of cavernous nooks and crannies to fill. As such, it seemed an odd choice for indie hero headliners and an alt-country darling.

The incongruence between performer and space was apparent early, with Neko Case and her affable cohorts showing up to a scattered crowd and a largely vacant floor section. Leadoffs -- the sparse, banjo-pluck ballad "That Teenage Feeling" and acoustic-led "Maybe Sparrow" -- were mostly lost in the big room. Conversely, a romping "Maneater" fared better, despite the tardy punters.

By the infectious "Vengeance Is Sleeping" -- spurred on by a catchier-than-influenza guitar melody -- and pretty pedal steel numbers "Star Witness" and "Magpie in the Morning," the crowd had largely filled in. Throughout, Neko's versatile twang and general charisma made up for the fluctuating attendance.

Before emerging from the green room to a suddenly packed house, a real-time video showed the National lounging about, finishing drinks, then setting out down the tunnel. The clip did a decent job of encapsulating the outfit's ethos: an everyman band who just happen to be fronted by an amiable poet and filled out by two uber-talented sets of brothers. You know, your average group of pals.

The inclusive vibe initially struggled with the expansive confines, particularly during a pristine take on "Runaway." Rife with subtle horns and steered by Matt Berninger's baritone, it felt especially lonely in front of sitting concertgoers.

Drummer Bryan Devendorf rectified the situation, speeding the pace on "Anyone's Ghost" while Berninger tiptoed toward a yell. That's the thing about the National: they're masters of mood but specific tone can change drastically from track to track. Thus, the alarmist "Mistaken for Strangers" and the sombre brass of "Baby We'll Be Fine" coexisted compellingly.

Finally getting the audience on their feet for "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and a sing-along rendition of "Slow Show," the pace quickened, climaxing with the screaming crescendo of "Squalor Victoria" and the fantastic yelping on "Abel."

Health and safety regulations be damned, Berninger personally escorted scores of fans to the floor before receiving a whispered rebuke. Undeterred, he marched into the mid-priced seats for "Terrible Love," brought out Owen Pallett for a gorgeous new cut ("I Need My Girl") and fully embraced the populist tag for a mic-free finale of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks."

Evidently, for a band who went from barroom curios to theatre staples at a breakneck pace, playing a hockey arena was a natural step. Who knew?