Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Tired and wired

Last Tuesday, just two days after the big basement show weekend of 2011, I saw the National in Milwaukee. When the band announced a headlining gig at the Riverside in the midst of their tour supporting the Arcade Fire, I couldn't have been more pleased. Ever since their show last year at the Orpheum, after the Obama rally, I've wanted to see another National performance ... preferably one without a 7-foot tall stage, or a crowd that filled all of Library Mall. The Riverside was the opportunity I'd been awaiting.

Right from the start, everything seemed to fall into place. I had the day off, so I was able to get to town, walk around, have lunch, and get in line at my leisure. I met some friends, and we got excellent spots right up front. Both opening bands (The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Twin Shadow) were good. They'd originally been scheduled for their own double bill at Turner Hall, before signing on as openers for this gig.

The National put on an excellent performance, full of intense songs and amusing banter in between. They won over most of the audience even before the show started, when drummer Bryan Devendorf came out during the set change to artfully arrange seven John Axford bobbleheads amongst the gear. When half the band took the stage in Brewers hats (someone was even swinging a bat), the crowd was theirs. I'm a complete sucker for bands with Brewers swag. Successful pandering! Wisconsin pride!

As Matt Berninger commented during the show, they did put together a pretty bleak setlist for Milwaukee. "We do have some happy songs. Honest." I enjoyed everything, though, and the upbeat songs were even more welcome in contrast. Unlike the Orpheum, where he may have been daunted by the tall stage, Matt had no qualms about entering the crowd at the Riverside. He left the stage during no fewer than three different songs - though he joked that he'd used the first as an opportunity to remove the bunchy boxers that were a present from his mother-in-law. Matt was roaming the theater for the entirety of "Terrible Love," and during "Mr. November," he draped himself off the front of the stage, absorbing the frenzied pats and grabs of the audience. Nothing electrifies a crowd like being joined by members of the band.

In a set full of highlights, two songs in particular stood out as highlights of the night for me. The first was the the live debut of "Think You Can Wait," from the soundtrack of the film Win Win.  It's a lovely song, and being part of the first crowd to see it played was a treat. The second was the final song of the night, "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," which the entire band played without the PA system from the front of the stage. The audience sang along, and it was the perfect ending for a great night of music.

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