Thursday, September 30, 2010

With my shiny new star-spangled tennis shoes on

On Tuesday, September 28th, everyone in the world came to downtown Madison.

Well, maybe not everyone, but I can't remember a day when I was presented with so many big-name opportunities in my own city.  The National and Owen Pallett had been scheduled for months at the Oprheum, and the Drive-By Truckers were at the Majestic.  Then, a couple of weeks ago, it was announced that President Obama would hold the first of four "Moving America Forward" rallies in Madison.  Ben Harper would be the musical guest.  Last week, I heard Jason Isbell was performing for free at the Wisconsin Veteran's Museum Tuesday afternoon.  And just a couple of days ago, The National was added to the Obama rally bill along with Mama Digdown's Brass Band.  Daaaamn.

I was nearly paralyzed by all the choices, along with horror of the downtown crowds and diverted traffic that would doubtless await.  In the end, I decided I could attend the rally - or try to - and make it back to the top of State Street in time for The National's show.  Surprisingly, I didn't have trouble finding a spot in a downtown parking garage.  I was lulled by the relative calm of State Street into grabbing a coffee and newspaper before moving toward Library Mall to find the end of the line.

Hahahahahaha!  By the time I found the end of the line, I'd walked with throngs of others from the base of Library Mall at Park and Bascom Hill south to University Avenue, west to Charter, north on Charter to Linden, and a few blocks west down Linden.  That's the better part of a mile, folks.  And people continued to arrive behind me.  (I'm not counting all the people who cut, which must have at least tripled the length of the line in front of us.)  Was it even worth it to wait?  Library Mall isn't that big, and I knew it would take at least an hour to get back once the line began moving.  But, I was there, so figured I might as well try.

It did take more than an hour - I walked through the gates as Tammy Baldwin began her speech - but I did get in.  Hooray!  It was too full to get anywhere near the front of the stage, to put it mildly, but walking around behind the stage gave intermittent views at relatively close range.  I got there just in time for The National to come out and play two songs, "Fake Empire" and "Terrible Love."  More speeches followed, including an appearance by Russ Feingold - proving rumors of his skipping the rally to be false.  Ben Harper played some songs.  I took in the scene, which included an impressive number of cops and men in suits and sunglasses, a few black choppers overhead, and honest-to-goodness snipers on the roof of Memorial Library.  Then Tom Barrett introduced Barack Obama, the first sitting president to appear in Madison since Harry Truman.

I enjoyed Obama's speech (and the fact that he talked about getting up to shenanigans in Madison when he first moved to Chicago, and got in a few Bears-Packers barbs).  But in the back of my mind, I was also thinking, "Crap, I need to make it back to the Orpheum."  I didn't have to worry about the show itself, since the band was still there watching the president's speech.  Still, I hate cutting things close.

Finding my way out of the security labyrinth proved more difficult than entering.  From where I stood at the rally, I could see State Street a mere block away, overflow crowds bunching around the security barriers.  So close, yet so far.  In order to get there, I had to walk up Observatory Drive and essentially cut across campus and back.  I still wound up arriving before doors at the Orpheum, since the show's start time had been pushed back.  A long line greeted me, but by then "long line" was a relative term.  Once inside I confirmed that the high stage was back, which meant arrival time didn't matter much anyway.

Owen Pallett was great in the opening slot - another reminder that unfamiliar openers aren't just something to be politely endured until the main act.  As Owen played the violin (and keyboard) and employed a looping technique, I couldn't help thinking of Andrew Bird.  Pallet's style seems a bit more classical and less ... whimsical?  The songs aren't really similar, but I can now safely say I enjoy both.  I particularly liked the song about the skyline of Toronto.

Around 9:15, The National took the stage.  Though this was my first National concert, my interest in the band was in fact sparked by a live performance.  Totally unfamiliar with their music, I happened to be watching Letterman earlier this year on a night when The National was the musical guest.  They played "Afraid of Everyone," and by the end of the song they had made a big impression on me.  Over the next few months I picked up and became very familiar with their three most recent albums, which served me well on Tuesday.

It's always interesting to see a band live for the first time.  I had some notions of what a show might be like based on their music and a few interviews and reviews, but of course the reality was something different.  I expected them to put on an intense, energetic show, which they absolutely did.  I didn't expect them to be as funny as they were between songs.  People apparently love to play "Slow Show" at weddings, even though, in the words of one of the Dessners, "This is the song where Matt talks about his dick."  Matt Berninger pointed out that the whole song isn't about his dick ... it's mostly about getting married.  There were anecdotes about the Dessners' cousin, Jeff, who played hockey for the UW and now sells insurance in Minnesota, and how Mrs. Dessner disapproved of a particular song because of all the yelling, and thought early on that they ought to find a pretty girl to be the singer.  (Matt concurred.)  Lots of talk about Obama - the band had met him for the first time that day, and were still riding high.  "He looked super nervous when he met us," Matt joked.  He later told the crowd that they'd been trying to figure out what to say to the president.  Drummer Bryan Devendorf's sentiment of choice?  "You rocked it, sir!"  Matt added that Bryan had been wearing dark glasses and a headband at the time.  "And then [Obama] ignored the rest of us and went off to do shots with Bryan."  

That was between songs.  During songs, the band was all business: which is to say, they gave an emotional, energetic performance.  Being a first-timer, I don't know what their concerts are typically like, or which songs might make longtime fans check their watches.  From my perspective, though, the setlist was excellent.  Songs I'd been hoping to hear were there: "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," "Abel" (the song with all the yelling), "Afraid of Everyone" (for the media), "Bloodbuzz Ohio" (dedicated to the swing states), "Fake Empire," the slow-building anthem "England."

Toward the end of the show, Matt noted that this was one of the best days they'd ever had.  The performance of "Mr. November" was especially appropriate that night, and though Matt didn't venture off the Orpheum's eight-foot stage, he did drape himself halfway over its edge, a sea of hands reaching out to touch his back and shoulders. And I couldn't have been more surprised to find myself near tears at the end of "Terrible Love," shouting the refrain over and over with the the band and 1500 others.  "It takes an ocean not to break."  I don't know what it means, exactly, but at the same time I do.  What a cathartic song.  In the end, that's what the best rock concerts can offer.

Back in August, I had to decide whether to see The National in Milwaukee or The New Pornographers in Madison.  I chose TNP.  Would I choose differently now?  I'm not sure.  Reason says I'd still go with the show in town, but it would be a much tougher decision after Tuesday.

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