Rockscope - The National @ Beacon Theatre - December 21, 2011 - New York, NY
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The National @ Beacon Theatre

December 21, 2011 - New York, NY

by Jane Hu

The National @ Beacon Theatre - New York, NY - December 16, 2011 - Photos and review by Jane Hu

As long-time fans of the Brooklyn-based five-piece are well aware, The National has more than earned this past week's six-night residency at the Beacon Theatre in New York. The sold-out Beacon shows mark the final dates in support of High Violet, the May 2010 album whose growing success has seen the band touring nonstop for the past year and a half. Add to that the nine years, four albums, and two EPs before this, and it becomes slightly easier to spot the tireless footsteps that trail the band's patient but steady rise.

As someone who has seen six (!) High Violet shows (and I won't even give the number of National shows in total), I'll spare you all the effusive and difficult task of trying to describe their music and instead take the liberty of listing The Good and The Bad of the last two nights' shows.

The Visuals. Michael Brown's visuals were by far my favorite addition to the production, a subtle repetition of images and colors designed to evoke the exact mood(iness) of The National's music, whether that's a lazy evening floating on a rowboat in the swamp or looking out at the bokeh kaleidoscope of lights from the back of a New York taxi at 4am.

The rest of the time, the projection didn't consist of pre-recorded images but rather a visually-filtered livestream of the concert itself from the perspective of the band members. Three minutes before they came on, there was the feed of the band getting ready in the green room and walking down the flights of stairs to the stage level. Towards the end of the show, there was the b&w almost-UV-like mirror projection of how the audience would look from the stage's perspective - kind of trippy. But the highlight for me was the superimposed closeup livestreams of each of the many talented musicians on that stage, a visual representation of the layers that make up The National's complex music. That and the Bryan Devendorf-cam -- that man sure can drum.

The Changing Setlist. The good thing about playing the same venue for six nights in a row is that you get the time and stability to change up your setlist. And when you have a back catalog as strong as The National's, that's the least you can do for your fans. IMHO, Saturday's setlist was significantly stronger than Friday's, with both of Alligator's beautiful "Geese of Beverly Road" and "Daughters of the Soho Riots".

The Guests. Friday's show got Saturday's beat here. Trey Anastasio (Phish), Richard Perry (Arcade Fire), opener Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), and others shared the stage at various points Friday. Not to mention an entire brass and string section. As much as I love horns, the brass was - at times - a little distracting. The strings were generally gorgeous, especially the guest violinist on new song "I Need My Girl". You'd have a cold heart not to swoon a little during that.

The Encore. Definitely a few songs longer than the encores in past shows, the band peppered these with crowd favorites "Terrible Love" and "Mr. November" (though Berninger skipped the crowd jumping on Friday, presumably to save energy for Saturday). Final surprise and highlight was an acoustic free-for-all version of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks", which hadn't been a notable track for me before hearing it just belted from the lungs of 3,000 adoring fans, accompanied by some solo horns and light acoustic instrumentation.

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The Seats. Yes the Beacon is a beautifully restored theater, managing to squeeze 3,000 seats into a space that feels much smaller and with pretty decent sound, but the problem is there were 3,000 seats. Seats. On which no one in the orchestra level actually sat during The National's set. Which meant they got in the way of the dancing and the crowding around the stage that should happen at a proper rock concert. Hence, this was not a proper rock concert.

The Vocals. I wasn't the biggest fan of some of the newer arrangements of old songs, particularly when they added additional vocals. Nothing against the Dessners, who are clearly amazing musicians, but what's distinctive about The National is Matt Berninger's level baritone. Introducing a second (or third) vocal layer as a harmony works well, but less so as a second melody when it threatens to overpower Berninger's voice.

Speaking of Berninger, he was a bit off form Friday. And by that, I mean he was much less drunk than I've ever seen him at the end of a show. Instead of finishing his requisite bottle of wine, he handed out a lot of his alcohol to the front row. Awesome for the front row, but a sober and happy Berninger means a more subdued and less explosive frontman, one that somehow seemed to care less. And just so you know, I seriously debated putting this in The Good section instead, because why am I promoting alcoholism?

These two shows weren't my favorites of theirs, nor were they my worst. For me, The National have a lot to live up to, which isn't really even their own fault. If only they were more of a flash-in-the-pan, producer-arranged and styled indie pop act, then I wouldn't be so hard on them (nor would have bothered writing about them).

But the fact of the matter is The National is a live act, and a great one at that. One that has repeatedly inspired me over the years to suck up my tired, trite disappointments and never quit exploring the world around me. I just hope they can use their well-deserved break to do the same. Can't wait for the new album, and can't wait to see them again.

~ Jane Hu