live review

The National

The National

January 13 2011
The Powerstation, Auckland

Reviewed by Soong Phoon
17th January 2011

The National, Thursday January 13 at the Powerstation

I had reservations about seeing The National last night. Their 2007 show at the Kings Arms was captivating, urgent and gut-wrenchingly evocative. Four years ago, when Matt Berninger sang "I've always dreamed about you, for twenty-nine years, before I saw you", I (along with the rest of the girls/boys in the audience) was convinced that those lyrics were about me. And yes, he was serenading me, and only me, with his sonorous bass voice. Boxer is a perfect album; it is both intimate and rousing, with warm, resonant production that highlights its lush and intricate instrumentation.

2010's High Violet was underwhelming. Most songs (excepting 'Bloodbuzz Ohio' and 'Conversation 16') are iterations of an equation that features sad lyrics about isolation or heartbreak + minor key + horn section. This equals emotional adult contemporary rock. As a result, the entire record sounds complacent and rehearsed. Berninger no longer sounds heartfelt singing about love and loss, and even worse, opener 'Terrible Love' plays like a slipshod demo.

But live at the Powerstation, oh man. They slayed. Again. The sound was maybe the best I've ever heard there. It was crisp and precise, and underscored the fact that drummer Bryan Devendorf is the real muscle behind the band. His propulsive, skittering drumming is what drives the music but it's always Berninger that's centerstage. And it's no question why: that rich warm voice, his groomed beard, dapper suit, leaning into the mic with his eyes half-closed, singing "Be still for a second while I try and try to pin your flowers on." While maybe not heartfelt, Berninger sure was convincing, and I fell in love all over again. Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Scott Devendorf rotated duties on guitars, keys, and bass and provided a lush, stirring backdrop to Berninger's vocals along with the horn section.

The National are excellent showmen. Thrilling ones, in fact. Berninger climbed up the side of the stage, and walked into a very densely packed crowd on the second level, then strolled downstairs and back up to the stage whilst singing 'Terrible Love'. This was after he smashed an empty bottle of Veuve during 'About Today'. But most charming were the grins on the faces of the Dessner twins, who both looked legitimately pleased to be playing to an enraptured crowd.

While some might be cynical about the stage flourishes and the rehearsed nature of their performance, it definitely works, and it's perhaps only the most soulless that remain unaffected. You can't really blame a band for pulling off impeccable shows repeatedly. Or for converting you to an album you didn't initially like. 'Abel', 'Mr November' and 'About Today' were killer. And I dropped my drink from sheer joy during the opening basslines of 'Apartment Story'. Perfect sound forever.



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