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Live review: The National at the Wiltern, Friday, May 21

May 22, 2010 |  4:47 pm

Even in a slow sales week, there are typically more flashy acts than the National bowing at No. 3 on the U.S. pop chart. But that's precisely where Brooklyn's heroes entered the tally with "High Violet," landing between Lady Antebellum and the soundtrack to "Iron Man 2." 

The band's steady sales growth has afforded the occasional splurge -- a pop-up shop in New York, or the trumpet and trombone players who joined the band at the Wiltern on Friday  -- but by and large, the National has ascended with modesty. Though the group performs with few accouterments, save for sparingly used disco balls nestled behind the drum kit, and offers little stage banter, a newcomer could be forgiven for wondering why such a seemingly introspective indie band is crashing the Billboard charts. 

Yet there's high drama in the music of the National. The characters that populate Matt Berninger's lyrics used to be "carried in the arms of cheerleaders" and are now paranoid parents who are increasingly becoming "afraid of everyone." The National continues to hone rather than necessarily expand its craft on "High Violet," but Berninger, who cradled the microphone on "Mistaken for Strangers" as though he were holding on for dear life, can turn the band's exploration of adult relationships into grand theater with a simple flare-up of his grave baritone.  

Live, the tug-o-war between Berninger and his bandmates becomes ever more apparent. The singer is, at times, eerie, coolly laying over the stutter-beat of Bryan Devendorf on "Anyone's Ghost." The lyrics are just vague enough to fall somewhere between loneliness and something of a more sinister nature, but one fears the worst. A meaningless argument, or a day out with the kid on "Afraid of Everyone," became a mini noir scene, as brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner hinted at letting their guitars explode. But the atmospheres, even at their most slicing, felt designed to keep Berninger in his cage rather than letting him break loose. 

"Bloodbuzz Ohio" rode that tension to great effect. Aaron didn't riff so much as scrape, and a more forceful, driving rhythm sputtered out just when it seemed that Berninger -- twisting and slapping his knee -- had roped the instrumental fragments into his paranoia. The National, however, aren't necessarily minimalists. A redemptive keyboard soon took on a more resigned tone on "Fake Empire," and a two-piece brass section tried to find beauty in the melancholy of "England."  

The band is apt at adding and subtracting in the space of a song, coloring in the shadows of its tightly wound melodies with moody accents. A bowed guitar haunted "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," and the backing harmonies of "Secret Weapon" were unsettling but captivating, a call-and-response rattle that felt like voices in one's head. Berninger let them out on the excitingly loud "Mr. November," stumbling through the crowd as he roared his voice to hoarseness and failed to balance on one of the Wiltern's waist-high walls. 

At times, the addition of the brass section seemed superfluous. Credit the band for using it sparingly, and to shade, rather than mimic, the melody, but the occasional trumpet blast lessened some of the music's suspense. The jittery rhythmic clacks and twilight keyboard inflections were all that was needed to turn "Sorrow" into a mini-orchestra, and one that eased grace and beauty out of gloom. "I live in a city sorrow built," Berninger sang with a matter-of-fact directness. Yet it wasn't depressing. It's where the National find comfort. 

Here is the National's set list from Friday night:

1. "Mistaken for Strangers" 
2. "Anyone's Ghost"
3. "Bloodbuzz Ohio" 
4. "Afraid of Everyone" 
5. "Secret Meeting" 
6. "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks"
7. "Little Faith" "
8. "Slow Show"
9. "Squalor Victoria" 
10. "All the Wine"
11. "Conversation 16"
12. "Apartment Story"
13. "Abel" 
14. "Sorrow" 
15. "England" 
16. "Fake Empire" 

 Encore

17. "
Runaway" 
18. "Lemonworld" 
19. "Mr. November"
20. "Terrible Love" 

-- Todd Martens


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