Live: The National, Neko Case, Sharon Van Etten at Hollywood Bowl
There's a specific answer that more diplomatic (or cowardly) critics tend to employ when discussing music with devoted fans of particular artists. Arguing with die-hards about, oh, I don't know, the National, which headlined a triple bill on Sunday night at the Hollywood Bowl with Neko Case and Sharon Van Etten, and telling them that their favorite band isn't as good as they think it is, is both futile and ill-advised and accomplishes little other than wasting two peoples' breath and time. So in such instances, it's best to respond like this:
“I respect the National a lot, but they've never clicked with me. A lot of friends with great taste love them, though, so I just keep waiting for the right moment.” Translated, that has meant: “The National have always bored me, and I've tried really hard to like them. All my friends are wrong.”
That's the disclosure right there, and the general response I've given for the last decade that the National has been releasing records. With each of the band's albums — including its 2010 breakout, “High Violet” — I've tried to give a few requisite listens before deciding that, nope, ho-hum, not this time either. I'm not saying it's fair, but anyone who listens to a lot of music surely understands that this kind of thing happens.
But there was a full moon on Sunday night, and it was Sept. 11, which those attuned to such things may suggest as a reason why, when the Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati band the National took the stage, a certain skeptic was sent somewhere mysterious.
It turned out that a polite aesthetic deflection was in fact the truth, and the proverbial click happened as soon as the five permanent members and two-man brass section walked to their instruments, and drummer Bryan Devendorf set the tone with a deliberate, no-argument beat that hit like a 4 a.m. alarm, and they burst forth with “Bloodbuzz Ohio.”
The undeniably seductive first lines of their set, uttered by crooner Matt Berninger: “Stand up straight at the foot of your love/I lift my shirt up.” That'll get someone's attention.
He said it again and twin guitarists (literally) Aaron and Bryce Dessner hit a double-gripped burst of a chord to shut me up for the rest of the night.
It doesn't have anything to do with right or wrong, one's aesthetic orientations, nor are the reasons often apparent why a certain set of frequencies finds purchase in pleasure receptors that in times prior were either unwilling or unable to receive them. The night was gorgeous, and the openers nearly perfect. Van Etten sparkled both in her black sequined dress and within her dark, secret songs, looking as comfortable at the Bowl as she was on the tiny Satellite stage a few years ago.
Case performed a nine-song set that seemed crafted for the anniversary on everyone's mind. It was forlorn, both by design and in execution: She combined morbidly witty sentiments like, “when we're older, and full of cancer/It doesn't matter now, come on get happy,” from her cover of Harry Nilsson's “Don't Forget Me,” with smart lines from her classic, “Hold On, Hold On,” in which she describes leaving “a party at 3 a.m. — alone, thank God.” Case, who was joined for much of her set by T Bone Burnett, did a number of unreleased works, including the stunning “City Swan.” So perhaps the openers primed me for the National.
“I wish I believed in fate/I wish I didn't sleep so late,” sang the National's Berninger during the 13th track of the night, the astounding “Mr. November,” a song that apparently I've either ignored or missed for way too long — it came out on their 2005 album, “Alligator.” On that and many others, they showcased a particularly Anglo brand of malaise, one that annoyed me in times past but now took on different character. “Slow Show,” from the band's 2007 breakout album “The Boxer,” felt sprouted on Sunday from the seed of British dandies the Tindersticks, but with blue-collar American guitars. You could hear the confessional hum of Leonard Cohen on “Sorrow” -- which at the Bowl featured a cameo by Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent -- from the acclaimed 2010 album “High Violet.”
The band wasn't perfect, my former self insists on stating on the record. The horn arrangements, which appeared on many of the band's songs on Sunday, generate a similar character throughout despite the melodies surrounding them, and tended to render songs brown with minor key brass drones. But, you know, whatever. Lesson learned. At least one convert has some catching up to do.
-- Randall Roberts
Update: The original version of this post incorrectly identified the name of the song "Bloodbuzz Ohio." The post has been changed to reflect this.
Top photo: Matt Berninger of the National performs at the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 11, 2011. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.
Bottom photo: Sharon Van Etten, who opened for the National at the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 11, 2011. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times