The National provided fuel for catharsis.
Madison music fans got a treat last night as The National played not one but two sets of beautiful songs about wounded, anxious characters who make you examine your own flaws and, on occasion, celebrate them.
The first, performed at President Obama's Library Mall rally for the Democratic National Committee, was less a set than a taste of the band's repertoire. It was also an homage to the concerns that face everyday people, especially young people on the brink of adult responsibilities. Though the Brooklyn-based band cloaks its lyrics in metaphors, its stories about characters struggling with money problems, moral quandaries and the grisly realities of war represent situations that many people in the audience face.
"Terrible Love," a song from the band's critically acclaimed 2010 album High Violet, didn't fire up the rally's crowd so much as lull them into a state of anticipatory wonder. While it wasn't the greatest match for the many shouts of "Yes we can!" and "We do!" that ensued at this event, it made the occasion feel momentous and portended a great show at the Orpheum later that night.
The song appeared again in the encore to the band's full-fledged Orpheum show, building to an emotional conclusion fueled by a thundering bass line. Though the band doesn't immediately invite comparisons to U2, something about this arrangement -- and the epic nature of the tune -- conjured up memories of listening to The Unforgettable Fire for the first time.
Of course, the show provided lots of other fuel for this catharsis as well. To the delight of the packed house, the band performed most of High Violet, plus a well-chosen package of tunes from its previous three LPs: 2007's Boxer, 2005's Alligator and 2003's Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. Bathed in blue light as it struck the first note, the band seemed to call out from the shadows to audience members, luring them into a storybook of tales about the foibles and frailties of young urban people.
Before long, the sound of a trumpet and trombone cut through the haze hanging over the stage, infusing the show with a stately air one moment and a touch of jazz the next. The addition of strings, in particular some lovely viola on "England," added even more richness to the band's sound, though the instrument's sound didn't always carry to the balcony seats. Compared to other shows at the Orpheum, however, this one's sound was superior. Though every word singer Matt Berninger uttered didn't come out crystal-clear, he was unusually intelligible given the low register of his voice and the acoustics of the venue.
Berninger's stage presence was especially captivating, and even a bit perplexing. As brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner duked it out during guitar solos, Berninger could be found in a variety of poses: crouching by the drums, slapping his hands to his hips and staggering about, twitching his shoulders, hanging his head and occasionally spinning in a circle. He was also quite successful at getting the audience to clap out beats and rhythms. And the few times it resisted, he didn't seem to mind, peering intensely into the mike stand as he sang his next words. At times, he even seemed like a dancing zombie, raising his shoulders and lowering his head in a strange dance that was especially fitting for the lines he repeats in "Conversation 16": "'I was afraid I'd eat your brains / 'Cause I'm evil."
However, it was "Mr. November," a song from Alligator the band has used to celebrate Obama over the past two years, that stole the show.
"This is one of the best days we ever had. This place is beautiful, so this is to Madison," Berninger gushed before launching into the tune. His vocals channeled a hint of Ian Curtis's moodiness -- a possible new direction for the band -- as the drums sounded with bullet-like precision. By the end of the encore, the audience was on its feet, much like the crowd at an Obama rally, cheering for more.