I don’t know what it is with the National and rain. That’s not true … I do. Their self-titled first album had so much water imagery — from Bryan Devendorf in a pool on the cover to the precipitation, moisture, dampness, etc., in the songs — and its continued across their subsequent releases. I don’t know, though, how the songs actually conjure the stuff. On the way to the second night of their Bell House stand on Friday, I had a thought: I remember seeing them once at the old Luxx space after the release of the debut and then later at the Mercury Lounge — once around Sad Songs… and once Alligator — and on all three occasions trying to find an umbrella before heading for the subway. That, and there were other National shows where it was raining and I just went for it without any head cover. It hasn’t always rained when I’ve ventured out to see the band — I don’t think there were any damp sneakers in the Boxer era — but it felt more than fitting trekking to Gowanus and finding High Violet continuing the tradition. It felt like a homecoming.
It was. These Bell House events were clearly good warm-ups for the band’s upcoming tour; less prosaically and, to me, more interestingly, they were triumphant hometown outings for a band who took their time talking off: A bunch of those early rainy NYC shows weren’t well-attended, but there was no way folks were missing this one. Something impressive about Friday’s show was whether they were playing new songs — they opened with High Violet’s “Sorry,” “Anyone’s Ghost,” and “Little Faith” before doing “Mistaken For Strangers” — the crowd was responsive, enthusiastically eating up songs they likely hadn’t heard before.
Technically, there was one minor and charming misstep (on the closer), but the the core quintet — fleshed out by Clogs’ multi-instrumentalist/backing vocalist Padma Newsome, keyboardist Thomas Bartlet, a two-man horn section, and extra percussionist Takka Takka’s Conrad Doucette — sounded stellar. (Bryan Devendorf deserves more credit, not only for his endlessly inventive drumming, but some great falsetto backups.) That, and despite what he might tell you, Berninger’s stage banter — involving the amount of tar escaping from his lungs after quitting smoking, the beauty of his wife, and the fear of failure — was amusing as always. (Also, slick black suit.)
The new one that seemed to especially hook folks around me was the rain-appropriate “Runaway,” a patient, slow-build burner that we first heard a year ago (along with “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”). It’s such a slow-build burner, one that feels both spacious and lush, that you could sense folks wanting to sing along: “But I won’t be no runaway / ’cause I won’t run. / No I won’t be no runaway / What makes you think I’m enjoying being led to the flood? / We got another thing coming undone / And it’s taking us over.” It doesn’t need a final explosion for you to “go ahead, throw your arms in the air,” etc.
They managed to play everything form High Violet between other more familiar tracks. Clicking with Friday’s theme, “England” has the line: “You must be somewhere in London / You must be loving your life in the rain.” Then, there are swans swimming in “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” “Sorrow” finds Berninger asking someone: “Don’t leave my hyper heart alone / On the water.” Swans show up again, along with bathing suits in “Lemonworld.” And, just for you Big Apple there’s “Little Faith”‘s “I’m suck in New York and the rain’s coming down.” I’m sure there are others, too. Figuring out, discovering lyrics is always a treat with a writer as sharp as Berninger. “Conversation 16″ has its “I was afraid I’d eat your brains / Because I’m evil.” “Anyone’s Ghost” — “I had a hole in a middle / where the lightning went through / I told my friends not to worry.” It’s a tease — you want to sink your teeth in some more.
These new songs have more obvious dramatic upswing than Boxer. Something that made Boxer so great was its clear refusal to have a “Mr. November”-style Matt-yells song. Here, they’ve seemingly found a way to inject that same sort of “Mr. November” adrenaline via the instrumentation without Matt having to raise his voice … the anthem comes via the vocal melodies, not their volume. Speaking of which, in the past, the band often closed with the anthemic “Mr. November,” its “I won’t fuck us over”‘s. This time, Berninger climbed through the audience in search of his wife and balanced himself precariously on a ledge in the back of the venue, but then it was back to the stage for new closer, “Terrible Love,” the song that they performed last week on Fallon. Everyone knew it, obviously, because National fans have been listening to on repeat ever since. Something they’ll also be doing pretty soon with High Violet.
Have a pass through our photos by Dominick Mastrangelo. The set list:
“Mistaken For Strangers”
“Afraid of Everyone”
“All The Wine”
“Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks”
The just released High Violet track list:
01 “Terrible Love”
03 “Anyone’s Ghost”
04 “Little Faith”
05 “Afraid of Everyone”
06 “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
09 “Conversation 16″
11 “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”
And, if you’re tired of watching that Fallon video, here are some clips from Friday night.