The National at Roadrunner, Boston, 9/22/22

Published: September 23, 2022

Yesterday, I went back and read both staff reviews for The National’s I Am Easy To Find (one by klap and one by Rowan). Impressively, they’re both among the classic pieces on in my book (even if that lovable mess of an album in no way deserves any rating over a 4.0), combining this site’s trademark tolerance of loving fanboyism with genuine insight, not to mention being a bunch of beautiful words strung together in beautiful ways. In this case, both writeups isolate and explore The National’s tendency to ponder the idea of distance (whether physical or emotional): in klap’s words the album is “another release about distances and quiet tragedies”, in Rowan’s estimation the band’s always has been obsessed with “distance, the lack of it, and the ways people are transformed by those extremes”. In short, I think these claims are essentially right, and all the more impressive because I’d never thought to put the band’s music in that context, even having jammed the band’s songs thousands of times by the 2019 release of I Am Easy To Find.

There was a reason I went down this particular rabbit hole, and (spoiler alert), it wasn’t because of an overwhelming nostalgia for the Sputnik of three years ago. Fast forward a few hours, and my wife and I were at the new Boston concert venue Roadrunner for The National’s concert, standing on the mezzanine, amidst the punks and cannonballers. I’ve been pretty much enthralled by the band for a decade, captured by the Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet trilogy like I’m sure many readers were. If you happened to have a presence on Sputnik in those days and any sort of interest in indie music, that sort of outcome was hard to avoid. My wife has what a typical judgy Sputniker might call “questionable taste” and wasn’t entirely sure who The National were, but graciously agreed to accompany me. When I did a quick discog run with her in the week leading up to the concert, her eyes lit up as soon as “I Need My Girl” came on: “oooooh, we’re seeing this band?”, so it worked out well.

With The National having not toured for years prior to the 2022 tour being announced, I’d been concerned that I’d missed my chance to ever see them live. Even once I had tickets, some wariness remained: while I’d only heard good things about the group’s status as a live act, they might be a little rusty, and their recent studio releases certainly implied a band past their prime.

I shouldn’t have worried much. From the first song (the post-punky bop of “Don’t Swallow The Cap”), The National were rather consistently on fire. Opinions may vary, but for me the peak of the early setlist was “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, the performance of which had hundreds of fans singing along to the woeful but undeniably catchy post-recession lyrics. From there, it was on, with the band running roughshod through many of the group’s more popular numbers (with High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me particularly well-represented). Several of the recently released singles which will (presumably) appear on a future album made an appearance, sounding quite solid, with the caveat that it’s difficult to compare a song you barely know with one that you’ve heard a hundred times and feel a deep emotional attachment to.

Some of the concert highlights for me were (along with the aforementioned “Bloodbuzz Ohio”) the gorgeous “Slow Show”, an energetic rendition of “Rylan”, which featured Australian singer-songwriter Indigo Sparke (who opened the show) dueting with Matt Berninger, and a monumental presentation of “Fake Empire”, which firmly laid its claim to be one of the classic songs of its era while also proving its versatility, at once the perfect opener to Boxer and a suitable swan song for the concert (prior to the encore). Most of the songs rocked hard, with the exception of a relatively subdued and elegiac “Light Years” (beautiful track, that one).

The band was in fine form. Of particular note, Bryan Devendorf’s drumming was impeccable (as to be expected), and Matt Berninger had an admirable vocal effort. The stage presence was all there too, with lighthearted banter within the band and with the audience abounding. Berninger (now 41) seemed to be losing his voice a bit by around halfway through, but that didn’t stop him from charmingly screaming during an Alligator-era style mammoth climax to “Graceless” later in the show. The encore was an absolute ripper, with the band attempting to remedy the biggest gripe one might have about the show up to that point: a total lack of any pre-Boxer material. A high-energy stomp through “Mr. November” and a thoroughly engrossing “About Today” might not be enough to fully satisfy the portion of the fanbase still pining for that era, but they certainly helped.

The playthrough of “About Today”, which finished off the show, brings us back full circle. The live rendition, moody and bare-bones at first, almost like a haunting Celtic folk song, before the hard-rocking outro, brought to the fore the tune’s intensely vulnerable lyrics, stripped of The National’s usual dodge of sardonic wordplay. “How close am I to losing you?”, muses Berninger. Yeah, this band is all about “distance”, of one kind or another. Fortunately, for all that, a good live music event is rivaled only by live sports in its capacity to bring strangers together. As melancholy and gray-tinged as The National’s music often is, we left Roadrunner feeling a sense of profound connection to the thousands of strangers also in the crowd. So worry not, all things are well.

Don’t Swallow The Cap
Mistaken For Strangers
Bloodbuzz Ohio
The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness
I Need My Girl
This Is The Last Time
Slow Show
This Isn’t Helping
Apartment Story
Ice Machines
Conversation 16
Tropic Morning News (Haversham)
Day I Die
Light Years
Pink Rabbits
Fake Empire
Weird Goodbyes
Mr. November
Terrible Love
About Today

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