Thursday, December 14, 2017

Despite Some Fine Moments, The National Fails to Stoke Nationalistic Fervor, at Least in Me — Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The National 
w/ opening act This is the Kit
Civic Opera House, Chicago
December 13, 2017
(also played 12/12)

The National didn’t convince me.

I’m not saying Wednesday’s show at the Civic Opera House wasn’t any good, nor am I being wholly dismissive of a band that has put out several stellar albums.

Although I don’t fervently return to them often, I genuinely like quite a few National songs. 2017’s “The Day I Die,” off Sleep Well Beast, is high among my favorite tunes of this year.

But as someone who lives for the spiritual high a great rock concert can provide more than anything else in my life, I had wondered if The National—who I’d previously only seen as an opening act, twice—was one of those bands I should really care about.

At least live.

There admittedly haven’t been many of these of recent vintage—meaning arising in the 21st century—and for the few that have exhilarated me (Arcade Fire, The Killers, Coldplay, LCD Soundsystem, in descending order), others I’d hoped might be fantastic live (The Black Keys, Fleet Foxes, Dawes, Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals, Muse) didn’t quite cross that threshold.

And neither did The National.

Certainly, to be fair, the atmospheric soundscape of the five member band (plus a couple touring musicians) originally hailing from Cincinnati isn’t one I favor as much as straightforward guitar-driven rock.

They’ve built a sizable, loyal fan base doing what they do, and if you absolutely love The National and thought Wednesday’s show was phenomenal—they also sold out the opera house on Tuesday—you clearly shouldn’t care what I think.

But perhaps akin to Wilco, I imagined The National might be a terrific live band combining exciting musicality—if a tad ethereal at times—with thrillingly galvanizing cascades of thunder.

Wednesday night—I don’t acutely recall their opening sets for R.E.M. (2008) and Arcade Fire (2010)—this sonic variance was apparent, but the the low boil-to-catching fire ratio wasn’t enough to convince me The National are the type of kinetic live act I cherish.

Eight of the night's 22 songs—per—came from Sleep Well Beast, but this wasn't an inherent problem as the album's low-key "Nobody Else Will Be There" nicely opened the show, followed by the rousing "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness."

From the beginning, a vibrant light show accompanied the music, and the Civic Opera House acoustics treated the band well, including singer Matt Berninger.

I prefer it when bands change up setlists, so must accept that I missed out on a few songs played only on Tuesday, but have to imagine a couple of these—"Don't Swallow the Cap," "Bloodbuzz Ohio"—would have added added to my affinity for Wednesday's show, especially if coming within the first hour as they had the night before.

Berninger did only a bit of the band's talking from the stage, so I believe it was one of the guitar-playing Dessner brothers—Aaron & Bryce—who noted that this was The National's last show of 2017 and they were enjoying "playing some old stuff."

I won't pretend to know every, or even any, National album inside & out, but I've listened to several upon release, and Spotifamiliarized myself quite a bit in recent weeks, based on songs that seemed to frequent setlists. 

This actually had me very much looking forward to the show, and though there were a handful of songs played that I didn't recognize, I don't believe this in itself greatly hindered my enjoyment. 

Though my mom was relatively shocked when I told her I was going to a rock concert at the opera house, I've seen a couple pop shows there—David Byrne, The Smashing Pumpkins—but far much more so, opera. 

And as I explain in almost any opera review you can find on, I appreciate and admire opera, but don't love, embrace or feel it, like I do a great rock concert or Broadway musical. 

Watching the National felt somewhat akin. Up in the top balcony, I never stood up, nor did anyone else. There was occasional rhythmic clapping and some singing along, but what I primarily felt was detached appreciation, with only occasional ebullience and nothing approaching wholehearted rapture. 

Toward the end, things picked up a bit, with the new "Turtleneck," "Day I Die" and 2005's "Mr. November" being relative blazers, nicely mixed with the more emotive "Apartment Story," "Fake Empire" and Terrible Love."

So I'm not suggesting I need a concert to be balls-to-the-wall rocking to be satisfying. Some of the National's best songs Wednesday were plaintive ones powered by the pianist (whose name I don't know). 

But far too much of the night was spent respecting the music rather than getting caught up in it. 

If you're a much bigger fan of the band, I hope you feel far differently about Wednesday's performance. 

But I'll end where I began, with simple honesty about my take, while nonetheless quite glad I took in the show.

The National didn't convince me.

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