Better Than: Listening to these bands perform on “Morning Becomes Eclectic.”
It was only three years ago when the National appeared at the Hollywood Bowl in the “crowd's still outside” slot before Modest Mouse and REM. They returned last night as the headliners, and filled the Bowl to boot. Not bad for a group that really hasn't had a breakout song. The Bowl show served as something of a graduation party as the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Ohio group.
The National delivered a powerful, impressive set, fueled by Bryan Devendorf's propulsive drumming and the hard chiming guitar sound of the Dessner brothers, Aaron and Bryce. It was a sound that holds familiar modern rock elements (you can hear traces of Anglo arena rock like U2 as well as U.S. college rock icons such as REM) but were given a unique twist by Matt Berninger's vocals. He used his baritone voice – reminiscent of the Tindersticks' Stuart Staples – to project a dark romanticism that went from moody to tortured when he unleashed an angst-y howl. Berninger wasn't your typical frontman. He often hid in the shadows on stage and sang hunched over the microphone. Yet, he also made the showman's turn by walking out into the audience near the end of the set and later tossed the Bowl's time clock off the stage.
The band concentrated on songs from their last two albums, 2007's Boxer and last year's High Violet, and their live versions revealed an additional physical quality to the brooding music. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” built to a hornets' nest of noisy guitars. The employment of two horn players increased the soulful romanticism of “Slow Show.” Similarly, the Calder Quartet's string playing broadened the textures of “Squalor Victoria” and “England.” The band also brought out Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) on a couple of tunes, and she was particularly memorable dueting with Berninger on “Sorrow.”
Acknowledging the anniversary of 9/11, the National performed an older tune, “Thirsty,” that Berninger said was written just after the attacks. (Don't miss our piece on the subject.) While it doesn't address the tragic event directly, you can feel a man struggling to cope in the line “But today I find myself/Curling up behind the house.” Interestingly, the only other real mention of 9/11's 10th anniversary came when KCRW's Jason Bentley spoke of the occasion before he introduced Neko Case.
Case served as the night's middle act; she has long been a critics' darling with her blending of art songs with twangy roots-based music. Live, however, her songs were sometimes more intellectual than engaging.
Case has a wonderfully expressive voice and she had a talented, versatile band backing her, but her songs came off a bit too artful. Numbers like “Maybe Sparrow” and “Magpie to the Morning” felt more like sung poetry. Case's set leaned slightly more on tracks from her 2006 CD Fox Confessor Brings The Flood than her more recent Middle Cyclone, although she also played some new tunes, with “Calling Cards” and “Bracing For Sunday” sounding particularly promising. Like the National, Case also had a special guest – T Bone Burnett. While his guitar work brought some sonic depth, Case already had two talented guitarists (Paul Rigby and Jon Rauhouse), so his appearance was a little anticlimactic.
Sharon Van Etten opened the night with a set that got people to stop chatting and listen, an impressive feat for the typically thankless pre-sunset slot. She nicely translated her quiet, vulnerable recordings to the large Bowl stage. Backed by a bassist, drummer and keyboardist, she plugged in a big red electric guitar to serve up dark yet spirited folk-rock. She turned in an especially rocking rendition of “Don't Do It” from her recent Epic disc as well as strong versions of that album's tracks, “Peace Sign” and “Save Yourself.” Her short set concluded with an acoustic take of “Love Me,” which was a bit too quiet to end an overall engaging performance.
Critical Bias: Although Neko Case's recent albums have garnered tons of accolades, I still favor her earlier releases that she did for Bloodshot Records.
Random Notebook Dump: The National came out on stage to the Ricky Nelson nugget, “Young World.” The group also dutifully plugged the two movies – Win Win and Warrior – that they have songs in.
The Crowd: There was more gray hair than blue or pink or green and the smell of picnic basket chicken was more prevalent than pot.
Set lists below.
Sharon Van Etten's set included
Don't Do It
All I Can
Neko Case's set included
That Teenage Feeling
Margaret Vs. Pauline
Hold On Hold On
Magpie to the Morning
Bracing For Sunday
Don't Forget Me
Vengeance is Sleeping
The National's set included
Afraid of Everyone
Think You Can Wait