Thursday, June 7th, 2007

Slow Show

The title of this post, just to be clear, is in no way descriptive of the show in question. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First, they put out what is arguably the best album of the year so far in Boxer – then they came to town Tuesday night and put on what was arguably the best show I’d seen all year at the Opera House. If The National can pick up a few more RBIs, they could well make a run for the indie rock triple crown this year.

Openers for this tour were Montreal’s Shapes & Sizes and as a pairing, it’s a head-scratcher. I’ve listened to both their records including the newest, Split Lips, Winning Hips, A Shiner, and now seen them live and the best thing I can say about their deliberately awkward, fractured, deconstructed songcraft is that I just don’t get it. At a few points in their set I heard a semblance of a pop hook creep out but those were quickly buried under frantic key changes, tempo shifts, random bursts of hand-clapping and a steadfast determination to avoid anything resembling a chorus. I dunno.

The National’s last Toronto show last March was somewhat marred by Matt Berninger’s ill-advised decision to wear a Cincinnati Bengals t-shirt, prompting one drunken mook in the audience to attempt to loudly discuss football with the singer the entire night. Thankfully, this time Berninger elected to keep it simple with white pants, shirt and tie but I digress – this isn’t about The National’s sartorial choices, it’s about the music.

Playing to a sold-out house, the six-piece band (violinist/keyboardist/unofficial sixth man Padme Newsome was along for the tour) stepped up and made a compelling argument for themselves as best goddamn band in the world right now. Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but only a bit. Tight, taut and intense, The National powered through an impressive 19 songs in an hour and a half with a set list drawing heavily from Boxer and Alligator, with a couple nods to earlier works Cherry Tree and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. Live, the Boxer material lost a bit of the album’s texture and orchestration but that was more than compensated for in more inventive guitarwork from the brothers Dessner and energy from the band overall. Similarly, the more overt rockers – “Mr November”, “Abel” and “Murder Me Rachael” – were amped up further and were quite simply explosive.

One of the things that surprised me the most on the evening was the audience – for whatever reason I still had the impression of The National as a somewhat underground band, effusive critical acclaim for their last two albums notwithstanding, yet here they were selling out a venue two and a half times the size of the one they played just over a year ago. And from the audience sample in my immediate vicinity, these weren’t just the curious or cool kids out to be seen – these were fans. Screaming, know-all-the-words-and-singing-along genuine fans. And by god did we scream and sing along. So good. So so so so good.

The Globe & Mail and Torontoist also have reviews of the show. The band made the rounds with the Canadian press, talking to eye, Exclaim! and Chart. There’s also articles on the band from The New York Post, Paste, The Detroit Free Press and The Riverfront Times while Pitchfork solicits a list of this and that from Matt Berninger.

Spinner also has an Interface session with the band and I was happy to learn that they’re recording a Daytrotter session next week – more free, live sessions = good. Like check out the live version of “Squalor Victoria” below, taken from a White Session recorded for French Radio last week. The Rawking Refuses To Stop has the whole session available to download, which you should do posthaste.

Photos: The National, Shapes & Sizes @ The Opera House – June 5, 2007
MP3: The National – “Fake Empire”
MP3: The National – “Squalor Victoria” (White Session)
MP3: Shapes & Sizes – “Alone/Alive”
MP3: Shapes & Sizes – “Head Movin'”
Video: The National – “Mistaken For Strangers” (YouTube)
Video: A Skin, A Night preview
MySpace: The National
MySpace: Shapes & Sizes

Billboard reports on some of the controversy surrounding Wilco’s decision to license their music to Volkswagen to use in ads. I personally see no problem with this whatsoever but that’s just me. No word on whether the band will be touring across America in those old-school VW vans. River City Reader talks to John Stirratt about the current lineup of the band and also talks to Alan Sparhawk of their tourmates on this jaunt, Low. Said bill arrives in Toronto for a show at Massey Hall on June 30.

So NxNE kicks off in earnest tonight and as a sponsor, NOW is naturally dedicated a goodly portion of this week’s issue to previewing it. If you’re still looking for things to see or more info about the performers, that’s where you want to go. Also check out eye and The Toronto Star and blogTO’s recommendations and Torontoist’s picks for Friday night. Chart has a chat with tonight’s date at the Horseshoe, Buffalo Tom, while NOW profiles Voxtrot, doing a double-header at Sneaky Dee’s on Friday night. eye talks to Fountains Of Wayne, at Lee’s on Sunday night.

More shows announced! Hardcore legend Ian MacKaye’s latest project, The Evens, will be at the Whipper Snapper Gallery on June 13 while instru-metal outfit Pelican are at Lee’s Palace on July 21. If you miss Handsome Furs’ NxNE show at the Comfort Zone tomorrow night or just want to see them at a venue a little less, well, disgusting, they’re back on July 31 for a show at Lee’s. Also coming to Lee’s – UK brother act The Cribs on August 7 and on August 15, Brooklyn synth-pop trio Au Revoir Simone (who are also opening up both Voxtrot shows tomorrow), tickets $10. Still with the Lee’s Palace announcements, August 28 sees Stereo Total and The Octopus Project in town ($13.50) and the next evening, The Magic Numbers ($16.50). Finally, looking way off and not at Lee’s at all, Iceland’s Mum are at the Opera House on November 2 – their new record Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy is out September 24

And now halfway through my vacation photos, pics from Zagreb, Croatia and several scenic locales in Slovenia are now up.

By : Frank Yang at 8:24 am
Category: Uncategorized
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  1. Tualla says:

    Nice review and photos – thanks Frank!

    Band was certainly tight and the sound was crystal perfect.

    I expect the same blogging effort to be put into Brakes next week and will say hello if you are there.

  2. Brad says:

    From where I was standing, the sound was horrible, one of the worst mixes I’ve heard in years. I started off on the floor near the back, and it was so bass heavy I could barely hear the guitars. After several songs of that we moved up to the first terrace by where the sound board is. It was a bit better, but I tried about three locations and couldn’t escape the people who were the to get wasted and pay no attention to the band. All in all, it was a pretty poor concert experience for me.

  3. Frank says:

    re: the sound – yeah, I’m not surprised. It sounded fine up front but I was hearing the stage mix and probably lots of vocals from the band’s monitors. Any between-song banter (all four words of it) were incomprehensible mud, though. Shame for those in less acoustically friendly parts of the club (which is to say most of it).

  4. distopian_dreamer says:

    A fantastic show! I was near the front and it sounded amazing! It almost felt like an Arcade fire show at times with the all clapping and the singing along (which I admit to doing). The sheer intensity of Abel was incredible and ending the show with the extended version of About Today was a definite highlight. Boo on the person manning the lights for Green Gloves though…

    I also shot a few clips of the show.

  5. Damon says:

    Nice review Frank. I really wish I could have been there. The fact that they wrote the first lyrics for most songs on the setlist is kind of funny; I guess Mr. Berninger is hitting the bottles of white wine again and needs the memory jog?

    Thanks for posting the link to the White Session recording. Sounds good.

  6. Tualla says:

    yeah, the house lights for Green Gloves was really irritating.

    We were on the Padme Newsome side , stage level, 20 feet from the front. Excellent sound, and maybe it was the proximity to the speakers, but we could hear all the very limited stage banter.

    Wish they’d done band introductions. It’s always a good time to crack the same joke as the night before…

  7. Karl says:

    OK, I’m not getting the "slow show" title, but I may be a bit slow myself today.

  8. Alex says:

    Definitely an awesome show, although the mixing sounded a little messy at times. Not the best sound quality, but for the most part it didn’t matter with Matt prancing about the stage and dropping his poetic, lyrical nuggets of urban disaffection. Absolutely awesome.

    I actually found some of the singing along going on behind first row a little distracting on the slower tracks. I came to hear Matt, not a young girl in my ear. :p

    Totally with you on Boxer being the best record of the year so far, and agreed about Shapes and Sizes. They seem like lovely people, but the music just wasn’t doing it for me aside from their opener and parts of their closer. I think they need to tighten up a bit too. Not sure what the girl’s name is, but her guitar playing was a little…well, not smooth, to say the least. Throughout the performance I almost felt they didn’t believe in their own songs. A band needs conviction, and maybe with some more time together, these guys can get an identity and put together something cohesive. As is, the vocal harmonies were nice in parts, but overall I was left a little miffed.

    <3 The National, no longer indie rock’s best kept secret. They totally deserve the accolades.

  9. Frank says:

    karl – just my habit of using song titles as post titles, but I didn’t want anyone to take this one as being some sort of commentary on the actual show in question, which was definitely not slow.

  10. 1000songs says:

    Great review. Thought the sound was bad because I was at the very front and ONLY had monitors to guide me. Maybe next time they’ll play Massey Hall and we’ll be able to hear everything!

    Here are the full black sessions:

    The National (2003) 11.17 Black Session #200 @ 192

    Slipping Husband
    All The Wine
    Cold Girl Fever
    Murder Me Rachael
    90-Mile Water Wall
    Lit Up
    Pretty Forever
    Cherry Tree
    About Today

    The National (2005) 4.29 Black Session #230 @256

    1. All The Wine
    2. Secret Meeting
    3. Driver Suprise Me
    4. Lit Up
    5. Cherry Tree
    6. Baby, We’ll Be Fine
    7. Geese
    8. City Middle
    9. Looking for Astronauts
    10. Mr November
    11. Daughters of the Soho Riots
    12. Abel
    13. Wasp Net

  11. Thierry says:

    Such a great show – and yet so many poorly titled reviews. But I’ll stop commenting on that, since I already sounded like a jackass for taking offence with the "Great White Hope" title of the Torontoist review!

    Great shots, as always, and thanks for letting me know about this band, Frank. Between Okkervil River, Shearwater and The National, you are now 3 for 3 with your recommendations…

  12. cigarettejeans says:

    Slow Show is my favourite song off their new album and the tuesday night was amazing! such good fun, and for once the Toronto crowd was actually moving. A definate indicator you are fantastic in this town.

  13. Tug says:

    Man, Bonnaroo can’t come quick enough. I can’t wait to see these guys play. Unfortunately, they play the first night, and they’re the band I’m most excited about. It’s all a drunken downhill weekend after that.

  14. Lisa V. says:

    I agree with Alex… Shapes and Sizes were just messy. It sounded like a rehersal, unfortunately. I just wasn’t feeling it, and neither was anyone around me judging by the talking!

    The sound where I was standing sounded amazing… we actually commented amongst our group afterwards that the guitars sounded fantastic… his lyrics were all very clear as well. We were standing front and center on the balcony. Great view of everything, and apparently, it was a good choice for audio as well. Loved Apartment Story.

  15. brendan says:

    i have to say that once again the Opera House proved to be the most irritating venue in Toronto. So much so that I vowed that night to never go to another show there. The National looked like they were playing an amazing show but the muffled sound and low levels on vocals didn’t let it shine through completely. I also moved around to find a good acoustic spot but it was lousy everywhere I stood. Add to it an always packed house with more than a few loud talking assholes and it was a major drag.

    Having said all this I would love to see them in a different venue and LOVE Boxer and of course the back catalogue.

  16. Karl says:

    I WAS a bit slow yesterday! I will say in my own (limited) defense that I used to be better at song titles and focus more before the Internet brought the endless stream ‘o’ music into my life.

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