Venue: Bowery Ballroom
Date: Monday, May 28
Rating: Ninety-nine bottles of Yellow Tail on the wall
On the J train to Brooklyn Monday night, this kid with a double-pierced lip reports via cell phone that the show he’d just seen—the National at the Bowery Ballroom, where he’d been standing to my left for the duration—was “orgasmic.” Ugh. Describing anything that isn’t sex or porn as “orgasmic” is as bad as calling anything that isn’t a cliff “edgy.” And yet. And yet, can’t be mad at the dude. The words that come to mind to talk about the National’s first of five nights at the Bowery—”affecting,” “intense,” “holy-shititudeness”—would inevitably be preceded by the ‘modifier’ “fucking,” which is also vaguely carnal. And so how can I quibble when I know we’ve both just witnessed something that made our heads woozy and our guts gooey and our eyes googly, but all we can come up with to explain are bad sexaphors?
The show really was that good. The problem is articulating why. Or how. Usually, a momentous show can be easily broken down into a convenient why-this-ruled equation. Like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Glasslands = 100 or so people + all women + video shoot + Karen O in her underwear. Or Deerhunter at Silent Barn = walking skeleton in a bloody white dress + getting bro job on top of a kitchen sink from a bandmate + Karen O, this time clothed. Monday night just doesn’t add up. The National at Bowery Ballroom = two sets of brothers + baritone lamentations + frontman guzzling 3/4 of a liter of white wine in the course of 90 minutes + consequently, a broken mic stand. Sounds like a suicide watch, not a gorgeous moment. There weren’t even any costumes.
The Brooklyn band’s entrance was weird. When the lights dimmed, Yo La Tengo’s “Everyday” played and played and played (that shit’s six minutes long) with nobody onstage. Pretty sure this was an orchestrated tease and not a colossal error, but after a couple minutes of Ira and Georgia’s whisper-singing, the audience started to get a little grumpy. Before we could get miffed, we got the National. Grinning. Giddily, as in Oh shit, we really did sell out five nights at the Bowery. They slid into “Start A War” from their (technically) new full-length Boxer. Opening line: “We expected something, something better than before, we expected something more.”
Irresistible transition: We expected something worse and got more. The thing about this band is that lines like “They’re gonna send us to prison for jerks” are great for keeping your shrink awake, but you wouldn’t think they’d be great for the Bowery Ballroom. But what you don’t get via MP3—or even if you were far from the stage when they opened for Arcade Fire—is the visual impact of frontman Matt Berninger. Hearing him intone excuses like “I’m sorry I missed you, I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain” (from Alligator‘s appropriately titled “Secret Meeting”) are rendered much more poignant when you see him banging his fist on his temples. Rapping his knuckles against his mouth with his eyes closed. Tilting his microphone at the same downward-sloping angle one would hold a liter of Pepsi when drinking from the bottle. Monday night, he came off like a taller, less stormy Ian Curtis—the kind of guy who sinks into his grey matter not just for appointments, but seasonal sabbaticals.
Right after “Secret Meeting” (the third song), Berninger started guzzling from a SuperSized white wine jug—pretty sure it was Yellow Tail, if anybody’s looking for an endorsement—and gulping from it in between every song. (The first time Berninger pulled out the squashed grapes, somebody up front hollered, “Is that a bottle of wine up there?” His response? “No.”) If you’re that type, you might say the wine’s saturation point went a little too high—so much that during the encore, he let the mike stand fall into the front of the crowd, nearly impaling Pitchfork photog Kathryn Yu—but I am not that type. Instead, 36 hours later, I am realizing that the reason this was so good was that Berninger, his booze, and his band of brothers made me feeeeel. Fucking prison-bound jerks.
The National play Bowery Ballroom tonight through June 1. It is still “sold out as hell.” Or maybe not.