The National: They're Nationwide

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photo: Sonya Kolowrat

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My cross-state colleague Jason Harper told me that a couple of years ago, when the National played Kansas City, they drew a staggeringly small crowd. A huge National fan (we still have to arm-wrestle to determine supremacy), Harper was justifiably bummed. And I was worried. What if the same thing happened in St. Louis? It was like a Zen koan: If a band plays the Duck Room and no one attends, is it still a rock show? And etc. Fortunately, my worries were completely unfounded. The show sold out, and the audience was into it, thank God. (I have a serious problem being surrounded by wasted, whoohoo-ing bro-dogs who barely know what concert they're attending.)

Opening acts Talkdemonic and Shapes & Sizes were both quite good, with Talkdemonic's gorgeous Lisa Molinero coaxing transportative melodies out of her viola.

My adoration of the National has been, um, documented, but this was the first time I'd had the chance to see them live. If there's a better band making music today, you're going to have to do a hell of a lot of talking to convince me. The songs that are so lush and amazing on The National, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, the Cherry Tree EP, Alligator and Boxer are equally stunning live. Brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf (guitar and drums, respectively) and Aaron and Bryce Dessner (bass and guitar) absolutely tore it up, and lead singer Matt Berninger brought sweet charm and self-effacing good humor to his stage banter -- an interesting juxtaposition to the menacing twists in the National's lyrics.

The true secret weapon on this tour is Padme Newsome, a non-official member of the National who, in the erudite words of my friend and co-worker Christian Schaeffer, "plays the hell out of a violin, son." Newsome's fiddle work was nothing short of astounding; it often appeared that he was trying to exorcise the instrument. Of course, spiritual cleansing was in abundance: for Berninger, who makes every song sound like a catharsis, and for the audience, who could not have hoped for a better performance. I was even happy that the guy who kept screaming for his favorite song (Guy: "Murder Me Rachael!" Berninger: "We're not playing that." Guy: "Murder! Me! Rachael!" Berninger, good-naturedly: "Nope." Guy: "Why do you hate me?") got his wish; the band's live version of "Murder Me Rachael" is amazing. Songs from the new Boxer (already touted by Frank at Chromewaves.net as a front-runner for album of the year, and I won't disagree) were terrific live, particularly the gorgeous "Slow Show" -- the closest thing to a straight-up love song the National's ever done. It was a treat to hear smoky, quiet cuts like "Lucky You" and "Daughters of the SoHo Riots," too. And, well, there's nothing better in the world like a National scream-along, and "Abel," "Mr. November" and a wall-shaking version of the new "Squalor Victoria" provided that joy.

In the words of the guy standing next to me -- sweat-soaked, red-faced and grinning, perhaps already regretting the number of Buds consumed, but then again maybe not: Thanks, boys.

Thanks.

-Brooke Foster

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