The National. Red Rocks. 07.31.16
As we get older, it gets harder and harder to get the band back together. Not a literal band, of course. We were never a band. But there was a time when we partied like rock stars. Going out on a Tuesday night was the norm; weekends were for amateurs. Then the years came and went, leaving fading memories and new challenges. The seasons orbit our lives, always reminding us of our own mortality. One day you’re a “birthday candle in a circle of black girls,” and the next day you’re nothing more than another “white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park.” The days of lighting up a room are over, and all you can say is “fuck.”
Real life isn’t quite as depressing as The National lyrics make it out to be though. Sure, careers and mortgages and children (and monitoring the children’s social media activity) and other real-world responsibilities may get in the way of a mid-week bender, but that just makes it more special when the stars do align.
If everything I’m saying sounds familiar, it’s not just because we share a common condition where our 30’s are joining our 20’s in the rear-view mirror of life; it sounds familiar because I plagiarized those two paragraphs from my own write-up on The National’s 2013 show at Red Rocks. That night could have been a disaster (like their doomed set at Riot Fest the next year). Even if Colorado hadn’t suffered devastating floods mere days earlier, flights could have been delayed, fires at work could have continued to smolder long past 5:00pm, a wreck on I-70 could have backed traffic up to Kansas… So many things can go wrong when trying to coordinate 20 adults (I use that word loosely) to attend a concert on a Tuesday evening, but that late season show went off without a hitch. It was the perfect excuse to keep the Rocks up past curfew one last time before a winter of hibernation.
As if to prove the world has moved on since then, the crew of 20 was reduced to my wife, another couple, and myself for last night’s show. Another group of friends were able to catch the Friday night performance at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, but many of those living on the right side of the Rockies just weren’t able to swing the Sunday night show. It’s too bad for them though, because those of us who found ourselves elbow-to-elbow with the capacity crowd were treated to one of the best performances of the season. Not only did Matt Berninger and the brothers Dessner and Devendorf come with an insane lighting rig and a setlist spilling over with fan favorites, they also provided a 6-song glimpse into the future of the band.
After a nice dinner at Café Prague (where the four of us discussed the experience of seeing The National perform an intimate, slightly unhinged show at the Belly Up), ominous clouds followed us to the Upper South lot. Joining the line of people in waiting, all the way down to the Trading Post, while light drops of rain darkened the asphalt, I couldn’t help but wish we were back in Aspen. That feeling was short lived though. Once we were inside and situated in the center of the 27th row, the sky cleared up and remained so for the entire performance. The air was perfectly still as Real Estate wrapped the venue in a soothing blanket of sound; complimenting the scenery, without threatening the contagious mellow buzz floating up toward the horizon. The raging party we had experienced in 2013 was replaced with the perfect atmosphere to see The National with close friends on a calm Sunday night.
Morrissey’s voice made introductions by way of lyric as The Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I What” was piped over the PA while the band took their position on stage. Berninger and the brothers were joined by a pair of multi-instrumentalists who dabbled in various sounds throughout the night, but whose main contribution came in the form of horns. As Morrissey’s pleas faded behind the three split-screens that acted as backdrops, Berninger was pacing like a caged beast; his neck bent, his head facing the ground, and his long blonde hair obscuring not only his glasses, but most of his facial features as well. “Thank you,” he said curtly, before following the brothers into “Don’t Swallow the Cap”. Everyone was on their feet, with their arms overhead, when the LSD-inspired rainbow light-show was washed out in bubbling crimson waves as the night transitioned into “Bloodbuzz Ohio”. Then we were treated to the first preview of the evening…
“Checking Out” started out with simple synth, then Berninger came in with his deep, introspective, stream-of-consciousness vocals about fucking things up, before a light backbeat and simple chord progression met him somewhere in the middle. The song continued to be very synth and vocal driven from beginning to end. Multiple members of the band have spoken about a new direction forward, and if “Checking Out” is any indication of where the new road leads, I’m certainly along for the ride.
“Afraid of Everyone” found the band protected from the crowd in a cage of green neon bars raising to the heavens above, only to discover they were locked up with the real lunatic when Berninger hurled the lyrics at his microphone from a distance of about 5 feet back, “your voice is swallowing my soul, soul, soul, soul, soul, soul…” His inner schizophrenic continued through “Squalor Victoria”, ranging from the forlorn lover to the raging maniac within a single chorus.
“I Need My Girl” and “This Is the Last Time” were made for slow dancing, and the following new tracks gave no reason to let go of one another. “Can’t Find a Way” was musically sparse, with a simple synthetic drum beat and electronic waves flowing like a stream behind something dangerously close to a spoken word piece.
The wind picked up a bit as Berninger decided the stage could not contain him during “Sea of Love”. Twisting himself up in the rails separating entertainer from the entertained, spewing questions about Harvard academics, he ended up finding his way back to center stage by the time the song came to a close. Showing his best human face, he addressed the crowd with a simple “How’s it going? This is really awesome,” before giving Aaron shit about how his hair was blowing in the breeze – “This show is brought to you by Patene.”
As far as I know, “Apartment Story” had not been played this year, so it was an extremely welcome surprise. Alligator and Boxer were always on repeat in my little apartment back in San Francisco (‘tired and wired we ruin too easy’ hit just a little too close to home in those days), so as my voice joined the chorus of those around me, it was almost drowned out by the ghosts of not-so-long-ago. That would be the extent of Boxer material during the main set though, and Alligator wouldn’t show up until the encore, thus solidifying The National’s decision to look forward rather than backward for inspiration at this phase in their career.
The next new track (referred to as “It’s Just the Lights”, to which Aaron questioned “did you just change the name again?!”) was a much more straight-forward guitar and drum song that was right at home among the various selections from Trouble Will Find Me and High Violet that closed out the main set. Their rendition of “Morning Dew” from the Day of the Dead compilation was complementary as well, but it wasn’t until after “Graceless” that our moment came…
Dedicated to a woman named Cheryl, the first chords of “About Today” struck us down. Somewhere along the line, that extremely depressing song became the one my wife and I chose to share with each other. Many of our life decisions have been made while it was playing, and many of our milestones have been met while those impossible questions were asked in the background. It’s not often we get to hear the song performed live (Berninger once accused me of wanting ‘a mass suicide’ by requesting it in San Diego), so my wife took advantage of the situation by crying in my arms. Luckily, “The Day I Die” was a lot more positive than it sounds, so the tears were washed away in dance before the set came to a close.
“Thanks again. This is amazing! I have played here before, but I was too terrified to open my eyes.”
“Fake Empire” was dedicated to the very real empire we are living in today, and then “Mr. November” took on a menacing tone that I hadn’t quite noticed before (probably due to the impossible choices we are facing this election year). “Terrible Love” found the lead madmen running up the steps and into the crowd, losing his voice and struggling for air while still holding it together against an ocean that wouldn’t allow him to break. The last true song of the night was also a new one, “Prom Song 13th Century”. Maybe I was just projecting my own memories onto the lyrics (as is easy to do with The National’s often puzzling wordplay), but it almost sounded as if it was the band’s own brand of nostalgia. It could almost have been a farewell song if they hadn’t made it clear that a new album is forthcoming.
“All the very best of us
String ourselves up for love”
The performance ended, as it has for a few years now, with an acapella , sing-along version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”. As we listened to it on our way out of the venue, I couldn’t help but be moved by how powerful those nonsensical words were. “I’ll explain everything to the geeks.” That song really is a testament to the band’s natural aptitude for touching people in a way that transcends words. Like most of their material, the meaning is up for interpretation, and sometimes unexplainable, but always completely genuine. I know quite a few people who don’t get The National. I don’t push those people. The music is not something you can force yourself into; it either calls to you and you go willingly, or it hides itself from you and your life is a lesser one in its absence.
As we get older, it gets harder and harder to get the band back together, but I’m starting to realize change is a good thing. Like the guys in The National, I am also looking forward to what’s next.
I look forward to the next album.
I look forward to the new songs.
And I look forward to the corresponding life events that will make those new songs as important to me as the ones that came before.
Don’t Swallow the Cap
Afraid of Everyone
I Need My Girl
This Is the Last Time
Sometimes I Don’t Think
Can’t You Find a Way
Sea of Love
It’s Just the Lights
The Day I Die
Prom Song 13th Century (Frankie & Johnny)
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks