(Chris Russell / Dispatch photo)
Prior commitments caused me to arrive at LC Pavilion during the fourth song of The National's set, which meant I missed the slow-drift balladry of "Runaway", the ecstatic paranoia of "Mistaken For Strangers" and my favorite song from the band's new "High Violet" album, "Bloodbuzz Ohio", which the band dedicated to the late Andyman Davis.
That's a pretty great way to start a concert, and thus, pretty bad news for me. Thankfully, the rest of the news was mostly good, though I wasn't totally satisfied until the show's waning minutes. If the National wasn't always revelatory — I'd still rather listen to one of their meticulously constructed albums than see them cut loose live — they had many moments of brilliance peppered amongst their consistently graceful gloom.
The set did have some sleepy patches, but when they hit on something special, they hit hard. "Afraid of Everyone" was almost as magical as their Sufjan-infused Letterman rendition, and when they dug back to long-lost older material from "Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers", it really hit the spot; chiming guitars and pulsing rhythms were a welcome shift from the consistently dour music.
The mood between songs wasn't nearly so somber. Despite forming in Brooklyn, The National grew up together in Cincinnati and thus had plenty of friends and relatives in the house last night, each of whom seemed to get their own dedication. Frontman Matt Berninger even cracked some Queen City inside jokes that went over my head.
They ended with "Fake Empire", hobbled by some flubbed piano parts during the first verse. It would have been a sour note to close on, so thankfully they returned for an encore that put an exclamation point on a set that otherwise would have been merely so-so. Beginning with an unidentified oldie (EDIT: "Wasp's Nest" -- thanks, Ryan Baker!) that they dedicated to Bryce and Aaron Dessner's mom, they assembled their most compelling stretch of music. That cathartic slow-builder segued into "Lemonworld", an engaging mid-tempo number, followed by the always rousing "Mr. November". It was one of the group's better-executed explosions after some of their earlier attempts to rock out came off a bit haphazard, particularly when Berninger's commanding baritone would shift into a perplexing shriek.
I figured that would be the end, but then they busted out "High Violet" opener "Terrible Love", a song I'd been waiting for all night. It didn't disappoint, growing from shimmering chords into a cathartic swell that made full use of the auxiliary violin player and horn section. This was the moment that tipped the scales for me. Before, I wanted to shrug; after, I wanted to hug.
The song's big finish would have been a fine end point, so at first I thought it anticlimactic when they followed their best song of the night with one more quiet storm I didn't recognize (EDIT: "About Today"). Then that final song bloomed into another one of the evening's transcendent moments, with The National eventually unfurling into one of those closing instrumental stretches where everybody, even the drummer, gets his spotlight moment. I never expected a National show to end that way, but it was oddly satisfying to see them take a hard-earned victory lap.
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