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TAS Live Review: The National At Bell House

The National

The National

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A feverish buzz went through the New York music scene when Brooklyn Vegan reported that The National, who release their new album High Violet on May 11, were "heavily rumored" to play two "secret" shows last Thursday and Friday at the Bell House - a venue that holds about 300 people. For a band that can sell out Radio City Music Hall, this is a rare and special occurrence. There is a certain intimacy that is lost, when a band that plays such personal songs relocates to a venue that holds 6,000 people. So it was a treat for lucky fans who witnessed The National preview almost the entirety of High Violet in such a small setting last Thursday night.

Although gig was was sold out, the audience didn't feel unruly or the club overcrowded. Perhaps that's just the magic of the Bell House and their perfectly placed stage, which makes every spot feel like the best seat in the house. It held a gathering of devout fans to which the band responded accordingly, clocking in an almost a two-hour set.

Matt Berninger is absolutely one of the most enjoyable frontmen to watch. He paced the stage, sipped white wine and swung around his new microphone stand which he excitably explained that he was "breaking in" during this show. Guitarist Bryce Dessner even commented on Matt's agitated state, saying this is what happens when he gets nervous. If he was nervous about performing their new material, there was no reason to be. Many of the songs were new, but they already sounded comfortable and familiar, like The National's signature anthems of disillusionment and urban alienation. Particularly exciting standouts were "Runaway" and the single "Terrible Love." Later, Matt had a rather tender moment in which he described how his wife helped him write two of the finest songs on Boxer, "Slow Show" and "Apartment Story."

Matt got looser and even goofy by the end of the show. He gave a raging performance, but all the while winked at us, like he was letting us on in a band secret. "I'm a rock star," he said, half-jokingly and with an air of self-deprecation.

During "Mr. November," my friend leaned over and told me to write the phrase "demolition gentleman" in my notebook. It was an apt observation as Matt - donning a three-piece suit - thundered into the crowd and screamed along with his fans into the microphone. He teetered precariously on the monitors and I thought he might fall, although we would have caught him, of course. It might sound like I'm exaggerating, but the compassion for this band was palpable all over the room.

Although words like "mind-blowing" are usual fare when it comes to this band, it takes a certain something to captivate an audience with a show full of songs they've never heard, but instantly love. I found myself wondering around their third song "Anyone's Ghost," a new track from High Violet, what makes The National so powerful? Is it the sincerity with which Matt grasps the microphone and hones his showmanship as if he's singing everyone's inner monologue? Is it the subtle beauty of their songs' orchestration, which sound just as exquisite with a core group of five people as it did with ten musicians on this night? Though Matt's words are bleak and somewhat defeatist in nature, he delivers them with a confidence that makes them seem comforting. And if I tend to wax lyrical, it's because they've gotten under my skin for that very reason.

The National Set List for March 11, 2010

Blood Buzz Ohio

Sorrow

Anyone's Ghost

Little Faith (Chromehorse)

Start a War

Secret Meeting

Afraid of Everyone

Lemonworld

Slow Show

Apartment Story

Runaway

Conversation 16

Abel

England

Fake Empire

Encore

Vanderlylle Cry Baby

Mr. November

Terrible Love