It was a surreal experience to walk up to the doors of Saint Louis Music Park during singer-songwriter Indigo Sparke’s set opening for the National. As I wrote in a preview of the show, Sparke’s music is folky, intimate, autumnal. And yet from outside the venue, you would periodically hear Sparke’s songs pierced by thrashing guitars and guttural screaming bleeding over from whichever one of the six (six!) bands opening for $uicideboy$ was playing at the time at neighboring Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre. I haven’t been to Music Park enough to know if this is a regular occurrence (and thankfully the neighboring show was inaudible once you were actually inside of the Park), but the disparity in this case couldn’t have been greater, and the result was really, really weird.
Not that Sparke couldn’t hold her own against that din. Her finale, “Set Your Fire on Me,” was a perfect example of what she’s capable of live, as the song’s gentle verses gave way to a loud, throbbing chorus (Sparke repeating the title like a mantra, which seems to be her calling card) with the aggressive drums being particularly prominent in the mix. The National’s Aaron Dessner’s production gives her new album (Hysteria, out October 7th) a lot of atmosphere, but the live performance’s loud/soft shifts gave the songs even greater dynamics. Here’s hoping for a headlining set here in St. Louis some day.
Dynamics are also an important weapon in the National’s arsenal: soft to loud, a slow build to a crescendo or an explosive chorus that blasts away a sedate verse. “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” was a perfect example of this effect; you could describe the recorded version as “sedate,” but live, the song legit rocks. The verses were sparse, built off clanging piano chords and angular stabs of guitar, but they crackled with energy, energy that burst out for the chorus, as singer Matt Berninger left behind his typical baritone croon to wail “I can’t explain it/ Any other/ Any other way” in a ragged howl.
Though the National excels when they can let a song slowly build up a good head of steam, most of the show’s best moments were the quiet ones. Berninger spent much of the show prowling the stage like a good front man should, working the sides of the stage, venturing out to touch the crowd at centerstage, shifting his gaze to make it feel like each lyric was directed at a different individual in the crowd. So when he actually planted himself in front of his mic stand for the entirety of “I Need My Girl,” the shift in energy and intimacy was palpable. “Slow Show”—which a Dessner brother (sorry, not sure which one) said is a regular at weddings—was similarly effective, and a real crowd-pleaser, with all the phones coming out as Berninger sang “You know I dreamed about you/ For twenty-nine years before I saw you.” The Dessner brother at stage right introduced the tender “Wasp Nest” as their mom’s favorite song, and it’s easy to see why, with its first two verses performed to just acoustic guitars and a gentle, simple beat. Blending the two approaches, new song “Ice Machines” similarly started slow with prettily plucked guitars before the kick drum kicked in on the second verse, propelling the song as it built and built until the National blasted us away with a wall of sound.
Wait, new song? Yes, the band played four new songs as they continue workshopping songs intended for their next album, their ninth, which is still lacking a title and release date. The most interesting was the first of the night, “This Isn’t Helping,” as it represents true new territory for the band: it sounded downright poppy. Not that the National doesn’t have plenty of catchy songs in their catalog, but “This Isn’t Helping” felt more traditionally poppy than you’d expect from this band. It’s another slow and pretty song, but with plenty of acoustic guitar jangle, a well-placed shaker, and a nice reverb-y guitar solo. Berninger’s vocals were also switched up; his usual halfway-spoke-sung delivery is halting in a way that often comes off as if he’s purposefully fighting against the melody (“The System Only Dreams of Total Darkness” is a perfect example of this), yet here he sang cleanly and clearly, and was melodically right in line with his instrumental backing. “Traditional” and “poppy” fortunately do not mean “lazy” or “boring,” just a slight tweak on the band’s formula while still sounding like the National. “Tropic Morning News (Haversham)” split the difference between old and new approaches, leaning heavily on the band’s U2 influence to conjure the days of War or The Unforgettable Fire.
Saint Louis Music Park is a seated venue, and it made sense to me that the National would play there as they’re the type of band made for seated venues, where you just lean back and let the music wash over you. I clearly appreciate the National in a different way than most because the crowd was into it, man, more than I ever would’ve expected, the vast majority staying on their feet the entire show. I’d never considered them as music you could dance to either, and yet “Rylan” (which saw opener Sparke join Berninger for a duet) had people dancing in the aisle. “Day I Die” was the biggest crowd-pleaser, conjuring up jumping, fist pumping, and an emphatic singalong. The only clunker of the set to these ears was “England,” which rode a nice cascading drumbeat from Bryan Devendorf but had bleating keyboards that sounded straight out of Mannheim Steamroller. But maybe I’m wrong because the crowd enthusiastically clapped along to the beat anyway.
The encore opened with the fourth and best-known of the new songs, “Weird Goodbyes,” a slow burner with a skittering beat and ringing piano chords whose recorded version (released recently as a single) is a collaboration with Bon Iver. From that quieter beginning, the band launched into their big rock moment with “Mr. November,” which saw Berninger going out into the crowd and doing a circuit around the floor seats (shoutout to those poor roadies stuck wrangling his mic chord as he wandered through the crowd, even getting sort of half-tackled by a drunk girl at one point). Their performance of “Terrible Love” was epic, downright cathartic, another slow-build-to-an-explosion song that ended with guitars held aloft and Berninger at the edge of the stage, hands in jacket pockets, giving one last professorial look out at the crowd. It felt like the perfect, fitting end to the band’s first time in St. Louis in nine long years. But was it the end? No! The band tacked one more song onto the encore, a run through the poetic lullaby “About Today” that also built to a satisfying crescendo. If it were me, “Terrible Love” would’ve been the show-ender, but it’s hard to complain that we got yet another great song to round out the band’s two-hour set. | Jason Green
The National setlist:
Don’t Swallow the Cap
Mistaken for Strangers
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
I Need My Girl
This is the Last Time
This Isn’t Helping
Tropic Morning News (Haversham)
Day I Die
Rylan (with Indigo Sparke)