Live Review: The National with The Lone Bellow @ Greek Theatre, July 28, 2016
A mild Summer evening treat, The National passed through town not on any particular album tour cycle, performing to a sold out Greek Theatre Thursday. (They’ll also trek north to that other Greek Theatre in Berkeley.) The stalwart American 5-piece by now cuts a familiar shape on stage – the Dessner twins, Bryce and Aaron, on guitars at either side, the Devendorf brothers, Scott and Bryan, the rhythm section at center, and singer Matt Beringer, either pacing the width of the stage or hunched over and clamped down two-handed on mic, plus a pair of brass and keyboard players at the back filling out the sound.
Live, The National, render their distinct slow simmer rock – lucid guitar lines, intricate drum patterns, Beringer’s imagist, often rueful lyrics crooned in his baritone – faithfully, adding just enough fire over the recorded versions. Drawing heavily from their last two albums for 4AD, High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me (playfully slotting the Los Angeles referencing tracks “England” and “Pink Rabbits” back to back) they also used the night to showcase a healthy dose of new material. They pulled an uncommon amount of reverence from an audience that pounced on tickets to the quick selling show, though their followers have expanded to well beyond the expected stylish, bookish faithful to bring in the casual fan, the curious (some of whom cannot shut up during the quieter ones). Overall, there was a nice near-equal appreciation for the more rocking louder ones – “Sea of Love”, “Terrible Love” (further amplified by Adam Granduciel of War On Drugs on guest electric guitar) “Squalor Victoria” – as well as the quieter ones – “Sorrow”, “I need my girl”, a show ending unamplified acoustic “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” sing along.
It perhaps seems an obvious point, but at now it for sixteen plus years, a seasoned act steadily increasing in festival poster font size, they’re actually quite excellent performers, Bryan’s frenetic work behind the kit particularly standing out. The occasional sonic outbursts – Bryce’s leads, Matt’s shouts – are distributed throughout the set to maintain the intensity at a high simmer throughout. That’s notable considering six of the songs aired were new. It’s a measure of the solid relationship between band and audience that they can confidently devote a fourth of the set to unheard material. These new ones – working titles include “The Lights”, “Find a way” (the best of the bunch), “Prom Song 13th Century” (in a live debut, for which Annie Clark/St. Vincent emerged to contribute ever so slight vocals) – are instantly familiar sounding and largely up-tempo, built atop looping rhythmic tracks, a welcome new texture.
At show by The National, it’s predetermined that Beringer must end up in the crowd for “Mr. November” towards at end (always a sight to see the guy that banters amiably between songs transform into the guy that shrieks “I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November!”) So the fun lies not in wondering will he but instead where will he when the time comes. This night, he dives straight up the middle of the A section, cuts over to the north aisle, hundreds of feet of microphone cable which the audience is all too glad to help manage. Of course the cable could be eliminated with a wireless mic, but that would miss the point, it’s this contact with the audience, this fun entanglement, that both audience and band can share in for the night.
Brooklyn’s Lone Bellow opened the evening with a throughly enjoyable energetic set of their soulful Americana roots rock. Not entirely familiar with them, they seemed at first glance a slightly incongruous pairing with The National, but made more sense when Aaron Dessner was thanked from the stage for having produced their last album. Their core trio – Zach Williams (vocals/guitar) Kanene Donehy (bass/a mean mandolin) and Brian Elmquist (guitar/vocals) – expanded on tour by a hot rhythm section – rewarded the early arrivers with a compelling compact set skipping from country to soul to folk to straight ahead electric guitar rock.
Photo by Kylie Speer for Goldenvoice