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The National was in chatty mood at the Pageant, or perhaps baritone intoner Matt Berninger and brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner were just trying to fill the awkward silences between the acts of their rock opera version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
They debated the meaning of songs, picked each other's nits, and when one brother went one mock too far, the other told him to "shut up."
It wasn't really high drama. Standing before a jammed, near-capacity hall, they were just high on the dark thrill of the night.
Even opener Owen Pallett (née Final Fantasy) seemed cheered by the artist-made paradox of inflexibly grim messaging and a kind audience response. "This song is about wishing death on your enemies," he half-joked. If Pallett feared a mass exodus of heterosexual males, he needn't have, as the bros (and sisters) in attendance politely applauded his dense violin and drum looping; I heard no outright boos, just a heckle for his percussionist to take off his shirt.
In pleated khakis and a white buttoned-down shirt, Pallett was ready for a casual recital, and stood statue-stiff to deliver SAT vocabulary tests like "The Great Elsewhere" and "Lewis Takes Action." The high school kids jammed on the floor got it; they couldn't have cared less how gay he is. Pallett's voice echoed Martin Fry of ABC, and even when he screamed into the pickup of his violin and sent the weird sample bouncing off the walls, the room was quiet (the back bar being the obvious exception) and semi-transfixed.
He ended the set with a confession of what it's like to be touring the US under the heartbreaking headline news of a homosexual youth's suicide. If you know a gay kid, give him a hug, he gently requested.
Before a high violet curtain (not a metaphor) and a blacked-out stage, the National walked out to an overture, Neil Young's "On the Beach," readying their instruments precisely at the lines "I need a crowd of people, but I can't face them day to day." Often, vocalist Berninger didn't, turning instead to the drum riser to crouch and howl at a kick-drum microphone that refused to thump at his command. He ran on and off stage, either to give the sound crew a whipping or just to fill his glass.
Opener "Runaway," from High Violet, was slow and luxurious, the band bathed in blue and white spotlights, and the horn section, trumpet and trombone, warming to the drone.
"Anyone's Ghost" was stronger, with the first of a dozen violin leads taking the place of guitar solos -- not that one would expect any from the National. The music stands or falls on the harmonics and textures and the relentlessly mid-to-cantering tempos. No one dances, and hardly anyone even moves at a show like this. At the single "Bloodbuzz Ohio," the gunshot drumming snapped the crowd and the musicians from their daze. The arrangement, like all of the nineteen songs this evening, was supernaturally precise, save the first of a few croaking yelps from Berninger and a burst of sleigh bells at the end.
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