Live: The National at Highline a/k/a Get Ready for CMJ


This is from the Bowery last spring. Just pretend Matt Berninger’s wearing a black shirt.

The National/Pela/The Little Ones
October 15
Highline Ballroom

“They don’t got fire, but they got a lot of rain,” hoots my wise, jovial friend as the National flee the stage and the 3/5-hearted encore chants begin. “Too sad to rock.” It is part-jeer, part-compliment, and all prophecy: After five minutes of 3/5-hearted encore chants, the house lights go up. Bzzzzt. Show over. The fake encore! A Hall of Fame douche move under any circumstances. Now everyone’s too sad to rock.

Still dig this band; still dig Boxer, a deft, elegant, subtly beautiful sad-sack indie-rock record (no syncopation! Bad indie-rock record! Bad!) that I haven’t played or thought about since May. But from the moment they heat up “Start a War” and Matt Berninger’s vodka-clear baritone uncurls, their immense appeal instantly reappears. He is gangly and awkward and weirdly volatile, whipping his mic stand around like it’s a javelin, oblivious in this act as to whether he’s nursing a tender ballad like “Slow Show” or raging through “Mr. November.” (Still far and away their best track, where all that pent-up pathos is finally unleashed.) His can somehow imbue truly truly direly twee shit like “Sometimes you wake up and bake a cake or somethin’/Sometimes you stay in bed” with gravitas and meaning. It is to be admired. At the Highline, a two-man horn section and overzealous violin player (always welcome, even if he’s only audible half the time) Arcade Fire it up a bit; stately Boxer songs now end in louder, crabbier mini-crescendos. These moments of rage are bizarre, random, and warmly welcome. Play a fucking encore. Preferably “All the Wine.”

It’s all easy to love and easy to forget. Get used to this. CMJ Week brings with it roughly 10,000 bands, the vast majority of these being dudely guitar-wielding quartets, all perfectly competent and moderately enjoyable for 35 minutes or so but very rarely lingering in your brain longer than the cab ride home. Tonight the Little Ones are very bouncy and exuberant (two guys bashing tambourines!) and Brooklyn’s Pela are raucous, grandiose U2-ish rockers, all their guitar effects set to “Grand Canyon.” Stage banter is befuddling though. “We’d like to thank the industry for supporting young bands,” the frontman announces. “And we’d like to say: Now is the time to shake it. Let’s go, music industry.” I have no idea if any of that is even sarcasm.