The National take advantage of intimate setting at Ellnora: The Guitar Festival performance

The Krannert Center for the Performing Arts is a strange place to hold a rock show — in some ways completely wrong, in some ways oddly right — but rock outfit The National’s Saturday night performance took the best elements of that novel environment and produced an offspring that oscillated between a pleasant evening at the theatre (accent on the “re”) and a P.G.-rated soccer riot. Comprised of two sets of brothers (Bryce and Aaron Dessner, and Scott and Bryan Devendorf on guitar, keyboard, drums, and bass) and an odd man out (singer Matt Berninger), you might have mistaken the group for any small-town bar band about to launch into a cover of “Cherry Pie,” as they took the stage. But first impressions are only useful in avoiding shark attacks and winning Rorschach tests. Your second impression, as the group launched into their first song of the night, “The Runaway” would be of some kind of Joy Division-meets-The Silver Jews love child — the kind of kid who is dark and literate with haunted circles under the eyes and always wears black. It’s second impressions that make long-lasting marriages and signify the art that really matters.
The Tryon Festival Theatre in the Krannert Center is a broad room, with plush seats and a floor at such a descending angle that there is no chance of anyone’s view being blocked by those cranially gifted among us. Seats were assigned and it seemed the audience was willing to abide by their designated place for the evening — at least at first.
From the first few notes of the group’s second song, the more widely-known “Start A War,” the emotional level of the crowd began to swell. “We expected something, something better than before/we expected something more,” sang Berninger as the rest of the band showed its softer side in the background. The song is off the group’s latest album Boxer, released in 2007, which has turned them into critical darlings, and for good reason. Though 2005’s Alligator is made up of many of the same sounds and ideas as the latter album, it is only on Boxer that things come together in that magical way that turns a good group into a great one.
The band’s first two numbers were slow burners, but the second the group began “Mistaken for Strangers,” a personal favorite, the rock of the evening began. A lyrical gold-mine, the song is a lost and lonely exit from childhood and into adulthood, of love and friends lost, of not giving up but needing to move on. “Oh you wouldn’t want an angel watching over/surprise, surprise they wouldn’t wanna watch/another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults,” Berninger sings near the end. Of course my interpretation is no more valid than the next persons, but upon listening to The National a few times, you form your own ideas of what the songs are about, relating them to your own life. Like all great art, it is universal and becomes personal.
These are good songs, but they aren’t easy-listening. They are catchy without being light, the world-weary sound of Berninger’s baritone echoed out from the stage wasn’t made for dancing, but it wasn’t made for sitting down either. A little more than an hour into their performance, you were glad you didn’t pay extra for the seats up front. At the urging of the vocalist, those in the back of the auditorium moved to the front directly below the stage, and within a few minutes the standing crowd swelled to more than a hundred in size. Where before stood a pleasant evening out, watching a movie of a band on a large screen from your comfortable seats, the essence of what rock was, is, and will continue to be, now took the stage.

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