I was as excited as a little girl at a Justin Bieber concert when The National took the stage at the beautiful Spreckels Theatre in San Diego and played the first few chords of Start A War. This was the start of a show that would end up being one of the best shows I have been to in years. It was amazing on a musical level, an arrangement level and more importantly, on a personal level. When Natalie Portman claimed that The Shins would ‘change your life’ , she was wrong, it’s The National that changes lives.
This was not the first time I have gone great distances to see a show. Flying to London for the weekend for Live 8 was probably the greatest length; following Tom Waits across the U.S. in 2008 what probably the most obsessive, and going down to Austin for festivals the most common. But this was the first time I flew over a thousand miles for less than 24 hours to see a band I’ve seen a few times before.
But this wasn’t just any band and they weren’t playing just any city. This was The National and this was my old hometown, San Diego. The National have provided the soundtrack to two very influential periods and one major decision in my life. When I traveled around SE Asia in 2006, Alligator was the album I listened to the most. Cruising around on junk boats in Vietnam listening to Karen. Riding local buses with chickens and puking children, listening to All The Wine while missing California but never wanting to leave this amazing place. Listening to Daughters of the Soho Riots while laying on the beach in Koh Tao after a day of diving. I get the chills just thinking about those times.
When I got home from that trip I moved to San Francisco. For two years I lived in that city and met some of the best people I have ever met. Friends who will be friends for life. It was a whirlwind of excitement, and when the nights got late and the bars closed down, we ended up back at my apartment playing records. One record in particular was played every night, Boxer. Fake Empire became our theme song. Start A War, our anthem. I can’t listen to Boxer and not think of that apartment; the smell of stale beer, people smoking out the windows and the sounds of The National telling their own Apartment Story in the background.
One of those amazing people I met in San Francisco decided to leave that city and come to Colorado with me. My wife and I drove out of the city one morning to the sound of About Today. I don’t know why this is the song I chose, but I did and it stuck. We listened to it while crossing the Bay Bridge as the city went by to our left. We listened to it as we crossed the state line into Nevada and we listened to it again when we drove into Denver. It’s a depressing song, but it’s a beautiful song and it’s our song.
So last night, after flying to San Diego and meeting up with a couple of those amazing San Francisco people who had flown down for the show as well, I was sitting 4th row when Matt took the stage with the Dessner and Devendorf brothers (along with a horn section) and played Start A War. I knew it was going to be a good night.
We were all seated in the 1500 or so capacity theater for the first couple songs; but while they were trying to figure out a feedback problem, the band invited us to stand. We didn’t need to be told twice and were on our feed from Bloodbuzz Ohio on. A song Matt took to new levels of anguish. Something he did many times throughout the night. For a guy who said he didn’t want to do any screaming on the new album, he sure brought it to that level live last night. Not just on songs like Abel and Mr. November either; he did it on a lot of the new songs as well. The guy also has a sense of humor…existing the stage at one point and coming back a minute later with the apology that he got a Google alert about himself.
The sound was not excellent the whole time. There was that feedback problem and some pops and crackles…but they seemed to work out those kinks pretty early. There was also a semi-obnoxious drunk guy yelling ‘I love you!!!’, to which Matt replied ‘shhh…that’s a little too much love’ and later asked ‘is there no booze out there? maybe that’s the problem’ before handing a full bottle of wine to the front row. A bottle that was passed around until it was drained. Matt likes his wine. He went through a couple bottles on stage and even dumped a bottle toward the end…telling the stage hand that he missed a spot.
Speaking of the stage, it was simple and sparse. No back drop, no crazy light show…just precise, talented musicians doing what they do best. This band does not need gimmicks or distractions on stage. They are sharp, but never boring. Their set lasted 2 hours and it felt like half that. Always the sign of a great show.
The set list covered everything I wanted to hear…I mean everything! They performed every song from the High Violet as well as All The Wine, Abel, Secret Meeting, Daughters of Soho Riots, Start A War, Fake Empire…and then came the encore! It was at this time I realized there were open seats behind me, so I invited my friends down from the balcony. They ended up coming down and we went over to the left side of the stage and found empty seats in the 2nd row.
We stood there singing and swaying along with one of my favorites from the new album, Runaway. Then Matt announced he was going to play a ‘sad song for his cousin’. I yelled out About Today…it just came out. Matt looked and me and said ‘what?’ and my friend repeated ‘ABOUT TODAY!’, to which Matt replied ‘mass suicide’. I took that to mean that he wanted to play a sad song, not cause a mass suicide. My other friend yelled ‘hey, we had to try’ to which Matt acknowledged us again, said it wasn’t going to happen and then moved on to Lemonworld.
Lemonword gave way to Mr. November and as I was was rocking out and screaming along ‘I won’t fuck us over!!!! I’m Mr. November!!!’, I almost forgot we had requested that song or that we had just had a conversation with Matt f’in Berniger. They ended the encore with Terrible Love and I was about to walk away when my friend said, ‘he’s going to do it! About Today!’ to which I replied ‘no he’s not‘ and then actually started to walk away. They hit the first chord, I stopped in my tracks and turned around to watch them perform an incredibly passionate version of the song my wife and I share. You could tell the song means something to Matt as well, because it seemed almost painful for him to sing. But he got through it and after the last lyric the band took it away and turned it into a stadium-style rock song. No better way to end the show.
He had called an audible, he did it for us and we appreciated it more than he could know.
We went for drinks across the way after the show and gushed and gushed to each other and anyone else who would listen about what we just experienced.
The National can change your life!
Start A War
Mistaken For Strangers
Afraid Of Everyone
All The Wine
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
Daughters of the Soho Riots