South Street Seaport
August 17, 2007
South Street Seaport gets a bad rap sometimes. If the comments section at Brooklyn Vegan is to be believed (and I really have to stop reading those things), the Seaport’s free shows always end up getting compromised by the hordes of Wall Street post-frat types there to drink at happy hour, paying cursory attention to the bands onstage but never shutting up for long. And, well, that’s true. The crowd at the National show at the Seaport on Friday night was still pretty huge even after a series of sudden cloudbursts had probably scared off much of the potential audience, and maybe half of those who were left remained decidedly non-rapt throughout the show. But, I mean, it’s a free outdoor rock show; awe and reverence shouldn’t be on the menu. It’s also a beautiful space, full of ascending lights and surrounded by really old boats. There’s also a Pizzeria Uno right there, which is awesome. And when the National was onstage, the surrounding topography actually added an extra otherworldly patina to the sound. The National have a truly great drummer, Bryan Devendorf, who holds the band’s refined elegiac fuzz together with rigor and panache. Every time his snare cracked, the sound would bounce off the highway overpass behind the stage and echo back queasily; it was like a real-time Martin Hannett recording. When a band works as hard as the National does to hold off on big rock moments, little things like those echoing drum-cracks make a difference.
For most of the hour-plus hunk of time that the National was onstage, I was racking my brain trying to figure out what band they remind me of, since they definitely reminded me of someone. Matt Berninger has a sozzled sort of baritone, an elegantly rumpled, vaguely patrician thing, but he still allowed himself a few Bono moments, hitting all his big moments hard, screaming his best choruses up at the foggy night sky. The five relatively nondescript guys standing behind him worked up a serious big-room roar, too, but they weren’t going all-out for most of the show. Instead, they’d build their songs up slowly and deliberately, piling sounds on top of each other and then pulling back and building up again, doing the old quiet-loud-quiet thing in a weirdly stately and dignified way. Eventually, I decided that Echo and the Bunnymen was the hidden-in-plain-sight influence I was trying to name; I’d totally forgotten about it, but I made the same comparison when I first wrote about the band two years ago. But that’s not quite right either. The Bunnymen were a songs-first band; the tracks on their greatest-hits album actually sound like hits. The National, by contrast, are all atmosphere; only a handful of songs have anything resembling a real hook. The band has six members, and violins and pianos fight for space with all the guitars, but nothing ever comes to the foreground other than Berninger’s gravelly purr. When a two-man horn section came out for a few songs, it didn’t significantly change the sound. The horns didn’t riff or stab; instead, they just added a couple more voices to the controlled clangor. This band always plays things close to the vest.
But when they’d finally launch into those big moments, all that delayed-gratification waiting became totally worth it. My two favorite National songs are the two with the biggest, most wrenching choruses: the “I’m so sorry for everything” bit on “Looking for Astronauts” and the “I won’t fuck us over” bit from “Mr. November.” Both of those songs come from Alligator, the band’s 2005 album. Their new one, Boxer, is noticeably short on moments like that, which disappointed me. But the band’s withdrawn tantrums always sound a whole lot more urgent and forceful when they’re onstage. This is a band that really needs to find itself a new producer yesterday; just because Berninger has a depraved lounge-singer suavity in his delivery doesn’t mean the band should be recorded like a lounge band. When they get to play loud, the band’s churn blossoms outward and sucks me in, and then those few big moments just utterly destroy me. During “Mr. November,” the entire crowd spontaneously applauded immediately after the first chorus ended, even the happy-hour casuals. The more this band cuts loose, the better they’ll become, and they’re already pretty great.
Voice feature: Rob Harvilla on the National