Most bands are louder, fuller and more grandiose live, than they are on MP3. But a few bands transform themselves in concert. They become entirely different beasts, unrecognizable when compared to the creatures who inhabit their album. The National is one of those rare breeds. On the group's latest release, High Violet, there are hints of a muscular persona hidden underneath The National's skin. But in person, the band is ferocious. The jangling guitar, clap-inducing drums and booming vocals that are neatly contained inside High Violet, burst onto the surface live.
On Thursday night, The National shook the walls of a sold out Terminal 5 with an understated grace that makes you reckon they've never played a subpar show.
Things began unassumingly enough with the soft-pedaled "Start A War," off 2007's Boxer, before the intensity that would become the show's hallmark made its first appearance during "Bloodbuzz Ohio." On High Violet, the song is a sort of piano ballad, more poignant than powerful. At Terminal 5, the track undulated and swirled with dynamic shifts in intensity and speed. It was a typical example of the dichotomous relationship between the band in the studio and the group on stage.
"Abel" offered another example. When lead singer Matt Berninger hit the final chorus, screaming, "my mind's not right! my mind's not right!" everyone in the band was pounding and squawking at full tilt. The crowd yelled right back, ready to follow Berninger wherever he lead them.
Berninger was also responsible for most of the action on stage. He would sometimes turn toward the back of the stage, drumming his thighs as he hunched over and stared at Bryan Devendorf's drums, seemingly transfixed by their rhythm.
After "Squalor Victoria," Berninger was so keyed up, he knocked the microphone stand to the ground, generating an audible thud from the speakers and shrieks of joy from the crowd.
The one bit of humor during the evening came when an audience member asked Berninger what kind of wine he was drinking from a see-through plastic cup.
"Uhhhh, white," Berninger matter-of-factly replied.
The National utilized a bevy of brass and strings including trumpet, trombone, violin, keyboards and accordion to go along with the boilerplate guitar, bass and drums. Sometimes instruments fell out of the mix either intentionally, or because they couldn't compete with the volume of the guitar and drums. But the band avoided any cacophonous clatter, a constant danger when there are a slew of sounds jockeying for position.
What was most impressive about The National's performance was that the band put on a superb show without breaking a proverbial sweat. The group went through their set as though it was just another day at the office. They expected to blow the crowd away.
The best analogy I can think of to describe this effortlessness, is the 1998 New York Yankees. That team won more games then any other club in American League history up to that point. They went on to dominate in the postseason and win the World Series, becoming one of the greatest teams ever. They did it all without bravado. They were used to winning and they never let it go to their heads.
The concert at Terminal 5 was one of the best shows I've seen in New York. But it was business as usual for The National.