Like I said earlier this week, Alive is not about to get partisan in regard to this election. We keep it apolitical around here. But if, like, Clint Eastwood came to town to enact bizarre performance art in support of Mitt Romney, we’d be there because as a film icon, Eastwood is relevant to the arts & entertainment landscape we cover.
So is The National, one of the great thinking-man’s rock bands of our time and native Ohioans to boot. They were at the Newport last night to stump for Barack Obama in the form of gloomy guitar ballads interspersed with reminders to get registered and vote early. They met with the press ahead of the show, an opportunity they mostly used to voice their contempt for the right wing. They even spent the day on the Oval helping approximately 11,000 people register to vote. (Singer Matt Berninger: “There's a blond guy named Gene that I actually f---ed up his registration. Are you there, Gene?”) But come showtime, it was essentially an abbreviated version of your average National concert with infrequent, vaguely political window dressing. No “Four more years!” chants, no grandstanding, just brief bursts of understated banter from a band that openly claimed to be the worst banterers around. (They’re not.)
That’s just as well because few of the people in attendance, save the exuberant ideologue pep squad whose scripted presentation preceded the concert, seemed to be there for a political rally. Giant “FORWARD.” banner notwithstanding, this was a National show filled with National fans looking forward to hearing National songs. (The number of voices singing along to “High Violet” deep cut “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” was formidable.) In that regard, the band delivered. Their set of fan favorites (not really “hits,” right?) was especially impressive given that the band admitted during the press session that they had been too busy working on a new album to rehearse this music until the day of the show. No rust was discernable.
They began with “Start a War,” because politics, right? Actually, Berninger made some remark about how the “Boxer” ballad was maybe not the right choice of an opener given the circumstances, but it seemed like an ideal way to ease into The National’s uniquely brooding headspace. They accelerated slightly with “Anyone’s Ghost” before really ripping into the instant-classic twilight rocker “Mistaken For Strangers.” From there it was a blur of one anthem after another — “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” dedicated to the Columbus crowd, of course; “Afraid of Everyone,” which Berninger explained was about the dystopian political discourse of our current media cycle; “Slow Show,” their version of a torch song; “Squalor Victoria” re-imagined as a Spiritualized song circa “Let It Come Down” — each of them graceful and grand.
The trumpet and trombone players at the flanks lifted this music to the heavens, or at least to the ceiling. Having seen them five times now, I can definitely proclaim that The National is an inside band. Sets at Lollapalooza 2008 and the LC in 2010 fell flat, while a 2007 appearance at The Basement (no, really) and a 2011 gig opening for Arcade Fire at an Indianapolis arena were exultant experiences. Such dark, introspective music, power-charged though it may be, does its work most majestically in enclosed spaces. (Weariness tends to drift away in the open air.) The only song that didn’t connect Wednesday was a new one called “I Need My Girl,” not so much an example of building tension without release as a failure to build tension at all.
No matter. From there came a grand finale featuring some of The National’s most political songs. They made sure to point out “Fake Empire” was written during the Bush administration. The crushing “Mr. November,” the most obvious National song for an election year, was suitably triumphant but not quite the iconic moment I was hoping for. “Terrible Love,” a deeply personal slow-build that has absolutely nothing to do with the government, seemed to be the big finish, but the band busted out acoustic guitars and shakers for one last tune that felt positively “Kumbaya” in the best possible sense. Their unplugged version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” generated more than enough electricity to end on an, ahem, hopeful note.
Across the street at the Wexner Center, another lefty rock show began minutes after The National’s ended. This one wasn’t an official campaign event, but with some of the most outspoken liberals in rock in the building, it had the potential to function as an unofficial second rally. A visit from Corin Tucker, who used to wail with feminist punk legends Sleater-Kinney, was occasion for an opening set from R. Ring, featuring alt hero Kelley Deal of The Breeders.
The place was damn near empty. It was debate night, sure, but Tucker’s old bandmates Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss would have had no trouble filling the place with their new project Wild Flag under similar circumstances. (Thank Brownstein’s comedic turn on “Portlandia” for that.) It’s a shame too since Corin Tucker Band’s punk rock is every bit as feisty and potent as Wild Flag’s, if not more. Sad but true: Neither of the student journalists covering the National show had ever heard of Sleater-Kinney, which apparently relegates Tucker to relic status until she stars in her own hipster-skewering sketch comedy series.
R. Ring was up first. I caught a few minutes of the Dayton-based duo’s Independents’ Day set but found it hard to latch on to their brand of noise-driven folk-pop in the light of day. Guess they’re an inside band too because this performance was mesmerizing and in-your-face, Deal trading heavily affected microphone duties with Mike Montgomery as they covered Shellac, wrung whirring sounds from a sewing machine and pierced the ether with melody. Deal, wearing an R. Ring T-shirt, debuted a protest song that included the lyrics, “Dear Gloria, choice has got no chance/ When big government's small enough to fit inside my pants.”
Paradoxically, Tucker’s band seemed less forceful than R. Ring though they were much louder. This was loose, fun, guitar-tangled rock music. It was steeped in the influence of ’70s Bowery guitar-slingers Television and possibly Jicks, the second act of fellow Portland indie demigod Stephen Malkmus. When Tucker and wiz sideman Seth Lorinczi weren’t weaving harmonic strands, watching Lorinczi gleefully coaxing all manner of sounds from his array of pedals and instruments was pure joy. The rhythm section held it down, though ex-Unwound drummer Sara Lund’s attempt at a playful “O-H!” chant received the most conflicted, self-loathing “I-O!” in human history.
Tucker’s voice, which could cut a pineapple in mid-flight, was as striking as ever. Her songwriting chops have not waned as she’s migrated further from her riot grrrl roots into the rock ’n’ roll fun that marked Sleater-Kinney’s later years. (Even feedback-bleeding swan song “The Woods” was built on hooks). She mentioned the debate and the Obama rally, but almost as afterthoughts or time-killers between songs. Even during the feminist wake-up call “Groundhog Day,” the stakes seemed lower than in Sleater-Kinney’s salad days. Chalk that up to the middling attendance, or the sense that something more important was happening in Denver, or the simple fact that Tucker, like The National and R. Ring before her, kept the discourse to an unexpected minimum. But although her show seemed less connected to the machinations of American democracy, witnessing her unleashing her powers was as exhilarating as ever — and certainly more edifying than watching those bozos argue about tax plans.