The National @ The Wiltern 05/21/10

It would be disingenuous to describe the The National as new or up-and-coming. The Cincinnati-based band has been around for a good decade and has a solid body of five albums in their arsenal. Yet their current - which included stop at the Wiltern May 21 - felt like an unveiling for The National as they begin to embrace widespread recognition on the strength of their recent release.

Showcasing much of their latest album, High Violet, The National spent most of the set throwing everything they had at the sold out audience. Trumpets blared, drummer Bryan Devendorf exemplified why he is one of the best in the business and Lead singer Matt Berninger showed how far he has taken his band, while also prooving how much more they need to travel before reaching greatness.

After three albums of near anonymity, The National first brushed fame with 2007's The Boxer, a stroke of genius lauded by critics the world over. But the band never quite took off as they have of late, with their latest album on many of the Very Important Charts.

According to Wikipedia, which is never wrong,

High Violet debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200 with sales of around 51,000. The album debuted in the United States at #3, in Canada at #2 and in Portugal at #3


For as far as The National has come, however, their show at the Wiltern showcased both their incredible strengths and too-visible weaknesses.

Berninger started off the set at the Wiltern in earnest, selling the lounge singer does rock-and-roll act better than most, often flitting around the stage that night with a glass (classy) of what might have been water but I'd like to think Vodka.

His voice, a monotone drawl that glides over most songs like a Malibu wave, is to The National as Zach de la Rocha is to Rage. But it's a tricky balance and when done live it can fall flat on many accounts, as it did at the Wiltern.

Too often, the orchestra of a band behind Berninger simply overpowered his voice; having a violin, keyboards, two horns plus the usual semblance of rock instruments can do that, especially to someone whose voice needs all the strength it can muster.

On "Terrible Love," for example, as the band crescendoed from a cacophony to musical order, playing as one, Berninger struggled to keep his voice above the fray, yelling into the mic by necessity and for effect.

The same happened on "Anyone's Ghost" and "Squalor Victoria," the former from the new album, the latter a beautiful track from The Boxer that ended with Berninger yelling the song's title into the mic over and over. The crowd ate it up, the ears weren't so lucky.

Even if some songs fell flat in the form of the lead singer's two-dimensional voice, the show itself was visually stunning. A flood of gorgeous lights filled the stage and gave the performance a moving, theatrical feel. On numerous occasions, The National helped themselves with beautiful versions of the seething, trumpet infused "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and "Fake Empire," a song as much about Los Angeles as it is the entire rock-and-roll enterprise. Both songs showcased the band at its best, with a dash of drums, a pinch of guitar and a teaspoon of horns each firing in perfect harmony.

Part of the popularity of The National - and the reason why the crowd shaded around 30 years old, though new, young fans were just as present - rests in their ability to capture the struggles of adulthood. Their songs tend to encapsulate life's difficult balancing act between the daily demands of a job, of a family, of the world with our own desire for personal levity.

For that, they will and should continue to have legions of fans while they amass new ones as their album pilfers through the zeitgeist. But it remains unclear if The National can successfully make the leap from studio to stage, and just what Berninger is trying to accomplish as the lead man. Certainly his own balancing act will decide the fate of The National, just as our own ability to juggle life's demands determines our future.

For now, though, he seems content. On the show's closer that night, "Terrible Love," Berninger repeatedly screamed the song's chorus, yelling about oceans breaking, spiders and other terrible things. It would have been somber if it wasn't so much of a love fest to an adoring crowd that literally embraced him minutes before, when Berninger walked through the crowd, mic in hand.

It was a surreal moment for a band that sings of life's hardcore realities, highlighting the inherent division of their performance that night. But at the moment, no one cared and we all learned to love the theater of rock, the Fake Empire.

Setlist:

Mistaken For Strangers
Anyone's Ghost
Bloodbuzz Ohio
Afraid Of Everyone
Secret Meeting
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
Little Faith
Slow Show
Squalor Victoria
All The Wine
Conversation 16
Apartment Story
Abel
Sorrow
England
Fake Empire

Encore:
The Runaway
Lemonworld
Mr. November
Terrible Love