When I mention The National, I get a lot of blank stares. I’m constantly surprised that the band isn’t on permanent rotation in every red-blooded American’s home. This isn’t to say that The National is a truly American experience, but rather that they’ve majestically described the struggle for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the ways that Ansel Adams captured the empty stillness of nature, or how Norman Rockwell illustrated everyday life, however sentimental and posed it may have been.
The Brooklyn brooders can seem a bit drab and heady to a casual listener. National albums are downbeat and expansively distant. The access points come in sugar-coated lyrics, like little gumdrops of words that stick to the teeth and hover in the pit of your gut. Sure, it’s cerebral, and it turns some people off. But these intricate lyrics—lines that communicate everyday human problems in such poetic ways—capture such universal themes in American life, cultivated and harvested from life’s rhythm of heartwreck, social awkwardness, and professional strife.
Frontman Matt Berninger’s poetry-laden croon has always been the essential part of a National experience. His guttural baritone cycles around lyrics, casting them across saturated melodies and setting a thematic that put The National in their own genre of hyper-intellectual brain rock.
The band’s self-titled release debuted in 2001, followed by several albums on the group’s own label. The first album to be released on Beggars Banquet, Alligator pushed The National’s appeal with a pattern of compelling wordplay and aggressive choruses, unrolling their musical angst and lyrical wit, taking us to secret meetings in the basement of Berninger’s brain. In the swells of their most ambitious songs, such as in “Abel” and “Mr. November,” the discontent is palatable, Beringer’s baritone roaring into a screaming eruption of modern vexation.
Boxer, the 2007 album that seemed to tip the scales for The National toward a broader audience, was rich with approachability and soaring melodies. But the group drifted away from the enormous, palatable swoon of Boxer on their next release, High Violet, which delivered some of the most poignant songs of the band’s discography but didn’t court a national audience like Boxer. Instead of turning the sails toward fertile, approachable land, High Violet began winding down to The National’s most minimalist record yet, 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. The album has a slow cadence, unfolding an expansive, waltzing rhythm that hovers atop a harmonious narrative of tangled melancholy.
The National has been weaving this narrative for years. On Boxer, Berninger is showered and blue-blazen, a professional in his beloved white shirt who bones up on the American dictionary, a bit stuffy compared to “Mr. November,” the character in the fist-pounding anthem from Alligator that ends in a convulsion of screaming and fit throwing. In “Daughters of the Soho Riots,” Berninger admits to having our dreams and our teeth marks. Now, when he walks into a room, he does not light it up. He wishes he could go back and keep a few secrets.
Trouble Will Find Me tour brought the band to headline Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater in September. To witness this band emerging from backstage made me so proud; it was a bucket list performance, no doubt. As the rhythm of our lives played out above the red cliffs, I felt each word slam against my chest. The rolling drumbeat become part of my pulse, and pure joy overcame me.
The set list is below, with my favorite lyrics pulled from each.
“I should live in salt for leaving you behind” (I Should Live in Salt)
“I’m not alone / I’ll never be / and to the bone / I’m evergreen” (Don’t Swallow the Cap)
“Stand up straight at the foot of your love / I lift my shirt up” (Bloodbuzz)
“When I walk into a room / I do not light it up / Fuck” (Demons)
“Hey Jo / sorry I hurt you but / they say love is a virtue / Don’t they?” (Sea of Love)
“Can’t face heaven all heaven-faced” (Heavenfaced)
“Lay the young blue bodies / with the old red bodies” (Afraid of Everyone)
“Everything means everything” (Conversation 16)
“Out of my league / I have birds in my sleeves / and I want rush in with the fools” (Squalor Victoria)
“I am good / I am grounded / Davey says that I look taller” (I Need My Girl)
“I won’t be vacant anymore / I won’t be waiting anymore” (This is the Last Time)
“Tired and wired we ruin too easy / Sleep in our clothes and wait for winter to leave” (Apartment Story)
“My mind’s gone loose inside its shell” (Abel)
“You own me / There’s nothing you can do / You own me / Lucky you” (Lucky You)
“You could drive a car through my head in five minutes / from one side of it to the other” (Slow Show)
“You didn’t see me I was falling apart / I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park” (PinkRabbits)
“Graceless / Is there a powder to erase this?” (Graceless)
“You must be somewhere in London / You must be loving your life in the rain” (England)
“Tonight you just close your eyes / and I just watch you / slip away” (About Today)
“It’s hard to keep track of you falling through the sky” (Fake Empire)
“I was teething on roses / I was in Guns and Noses” (Humiliation)
“I wish that I believed in fate / I wish I didn’t sleep so late / I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders” (Mr. November)
“It takes an ocean not to break” (a cappella) (Terrible Love)
My Morning Jacket’s lead singer Jim James is not strange for the purpose of being strange. He is truly weird, a savant of music. Stomping around the stage in his moon boots, at one point donning a red-lined cape and pulling it across his face in vampire-esque fashion, James and band set forth a spellbinding set at this year’s Sasquatch Music Festival.
For two hours the band presented a stunning mix of genres and atmospheric sounds on the first of three nights of music held annually during Memorial Day weekend. My Morning Jacket took the fog-covered stage, threw on the black lights and strobes, and opened with the epic ballad “Gideon.” They rolled into the reggae groove “Off the Record” and continued playing music spanning the their discography, with a particular focus on songs from “It Still Moves.” Several songs rolled into elaborate, lengthy jams, including “Dondante.”
The day opened slowly. Those rushing to catch openers such as UK folk singer/songwriter Laura Marling or Minneapolis-based hip hop artist Brother Ali were caught up in a festival bottleneck with upwards of two hour wait times to enter. Anxious crowds broke down fences in an attempt to get inside the gates.
The distinct feeling that Sasquatch is growing is undeniable. With tickets long since sold out and overfill campgrounds full, and the massive amount of people at any given stage is staggering. Mumford and Sons, in a 2 p.m. time slot, drew tens of thousands of spectators. Minus the Bear, which performed to ~150 in Billings just weeks ago, took the main stage at 2:15 to a crowded hill—capacity 25,000—of spectators.
Pop/dance band OK Go performed a short set of their hits, taking the stage in the mid-afternoon. Damian Kulash, lead singer, kept the crowd’s bubbling excitement throughout the set, asking at one point, “You guys wanna dance?” and launched into “A Million Ways to be Cruel” followed shortly by “Here It Goes Again.” Looking to the hill, Kulash commented, “I hope your picnics are going awesome.”
In their last show of their current tour, Broken Social Scene had the best time slot of the day, playing during the magical time of day where the setting sun casts long shadows and the Gorge begins glowing. Lead singer Kevin Drew shrieked, wailed, and delivered an impassioned performance complete with the National’s horn section and support from a guest cellist. Female vocalist Lisa Lobsinger and Drew displayed gorgeous chemistry, Lobsinger delicately balancing Drew’s rich baritone. When the two performed the ballad “Sweetest Kill“ there were few moments the followed the rest of the evening that were greater. Drew’s voice soared throughout the expansive venue, the lyrics drawn long across his tongue, the stage lights trembling above him.
The band had just traveled from Barcelona, where the performed with Pavement (one of Sunday’s main performers). Of being asked to perform at Sasquatch, Drew said, “I felt like I won or something.”
The performance led naturally to the The National’s set. The band opened with “Mistaken for Strangers,” but it took several songs for lead singer Matt Berninger to truly open up. He seemed aware of the expansive stage and appeared almost awkward as he navigated through the first few songs.
Once Berninger settled into the setting, he opened into a magnanimous set that mixed of the new album “High Violet” and plenty of tracks from “Alligator” and “Boxer.” The new album is one of their darkest, filled with brooding walls of sound and esoteric lyrics. Berninger closed with “Terrible Love,” the opening track from the new album.
Vampire Weekend followed, a band that is catchy pop at its finest. With only two releases, the band has gained a large following rather quickly. They performed a mix of new album material and old songs from their debut, but lacked the musical substance of the band before and the live intensity of the headliner.
Vampire Weekend fans, perhaps curious about My Morning Jacket, stayed to hear the headliner, but people began exiting the amphitheater rather quickly. With their musical intensity, My Morning Jacket is a jarring contrast from the pop grooves and afro-pop sounds of Vampire Weekend. In the pit area, My Morning Jacket fanatics mixed with people not fully aware of the musical prowess that would unfold. Unfortunately, many of them left before the set fully evolved.
For a band that is so superb, has such awe-inspiring talents, it is important that they were given a platform to perform in front of people who might not otherwise be exposed to their sounds. The performance in its entirety was mesmerizing and hypnotic at times. As bubbles floated by, their soapy circles glowing reflecting rainbows in the stage lights, the atmosphere was electric with talent, and there was a distinct feeling of time slowing. Cupping his hand to his ear, James absorbed the audience energy, thanking the remaining audience for “sticking around.”
“It is a God damned pleasure to be here with you on the main stage,” James noted before the encore. They returned to play three songs, including “Highly Suspicious,” and “Steam Engine.”
Sasquatch’s second day brought to the stage the rare stateside performance of England trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack. From hip hop artist Kid Cudi to London’s shoegaze/post-punk Xx to the legendary Public Enemy, the lineup for day two had an eclectic offering of bands.
The afternoon began to get tangible when Canadian indie rockers Tegan and Sara took the stage. Playing the majority of songs from their newest release, the guitar and keyboard playing twins made sure to throw the fans a few from “The Con,” as well. “The sight of all of you looks so gorgeous,” Tegan Quin said.
New York city dance-punk band LCD Soundsystem took the stage following Tegan and Sara’s set and dove into a set of their gyrating dance-fused tunes. The band’s lead, James Murphy, propelled the band through extensive grooves, including the calypso-inspired “Us V Them,” the frisky pop song “Pow Pow” and the catchy “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House.” Though his audience is majority composed of young hipsters, the 40-year-old Murphy is an musician that has been working in the scene since 1998. His age didn’t stop.
Day 2 had two intensely disappointing performances from household names: Pavement and They Might Be Giants. With lackluster sets and boring stage personas, both bands’ performances were regrettable.
They Might Be Giants was touring on their new album, “The Else,” released nearly 20 years after their debut. The band known for their wit and catchy melody was also tired, their songs novel and the live performance forgettable. “It’s 2007 in our hearts,” lead singer Ian Wright said, and they truly performed like it was.
The excitement behind Pavement’s reunion eclipsed their group’s live dynamic. The expectations were high and the band failed to deliver. Though they played plenty of great songs, they appeared bored and lacked the charisma and mystique of old Pavement.
The last time the band performed the Gorge was during the 1995 Lollapalooza. The band reminisced about their set between Sinead O’Connor and Cypress Hill. “Sixteen years later we’re between LCD Soundsystem and Massive Attack. They squeezed us in,” Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus said. Celebrating his birthday that day, the crowd sang to Malkmus before Pavement began the set. Plagued by sound issues, the band was noticeably upset when they lost power during “Rattled by the Rush.”
Public Enemy also lost power several times during their set on an adjacent stage, but continued playing right through each outage.
Massive Attack, however, erased all sins of the day. The Bristol, United Kingdom electronica band has been together since 1988, known for pioneering the trip hop sound. The band rarely performs in the states, and on its first North American tour since 2006. Touring on the fifth album, “Heligoland,” the band wrapped up the six-city tour at Sasquach Sunday night.
3D (Robert Del Naja) and Daddy G (Grantley “Grant” Marshall) brought guests to the stage including Jamaica roots/reggae singer Horace Andy, performing tracks including “Girl I Love You,” the British vocalist Martina Topley-Bird, who took the stage in a pink ball gown, and the sultry soulful Deborah Miller, (the stand-in vocalist for Shara Nelson’s parts). On “Safe From Home” Miller’s inner-diva took hold, her soulful voice belting across the canyon. “You can free the world from harm, you can free my mind. Just as long as my baby’s safe from harm,” she sang.
Behind the artists a screen flashed sobering statistics, a jarring contrast between the assaulting wall of sound. Contrasting hurricane renters vs. homeowners who have received federal funding, for example, or topical facts regarding volcano ash, and Sara Palin quotes (“We are all Arizonians now”), against trance-like music, the result was a sobering mix of intellectualism with electronic experimentalism.
The screen messages centered on America’s less desirable traits, including the recent immigration controversy in Arizona. Quoting the famous message that appears on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore), the band squarely asked: “What the fuck Arizona?”
The intent of these messages never felt insulting, and the final song brought their message full circle, contrasting the evils of American corporations yet placing the British “Beyond” Petroleum brand squarely at the top of all social evils.
The musicians said few words. Applauding their audience, the group graciously bowed and exited.
Taking the stage, frontman Ben Bridwell said, “I’d like to take us back to the starting point, if you don’t mind.” They played a wonderful set of old songs from “Everything All the Time” and “Cease to Begin.”
MGMT, the apex of the festival for many, started their set with slower acoustic sounds. Without much fanfare, they attracted the largest crowd of the day, drawing only the dedicated away to watch The New Pornographers.
Neko Case and frontman A.C. Newman took plenty of shots at MGMT fans filing out of the stadium. The band, a powerhouse of nine talents, might have been offended at MGMT’s drawing power, but knew they were playing to the dedicated few.
Unusual for this wordy lady, I have few words for the final day’s headliner, Ween…If you like them, the show was delightful. If you didn’t like them, you still don’t.