Thursday, June 10th, 2010

High Violet

The National and The Antlers at Massey Hall in Toronto

Photo By Frank YangFrank YangLike in most cities, there is a pecking order to venues that bands can play in Toronto that are commensurate to said band’s level of success. Start at the Horseshoe, move on to Lee’s or Mod, then the Opera House, Phoenix and Kool Haus. At this point the options going forward begin to diverge – the much-reviled Sound Academy has become the popular next step up (or down) but for a certain rarefied group of artists, the road ahead leads not to the city’s docklands but to the heart of downtown, at the corner of Shuter and Victoria – Massey Hall.

The National certainly followed that path, first bringing Alligator to the ‘Shoe in September 2005 and again following March, then quickly moving through the Opera House in Summer 2007 and selling out the Phoenix just a few months later on the back of Boxer. Clearly, this was a band ascendant. But even so, and even after selling out the much larger Kool Haus last May without even a new record to promote, the idea of the band graduating to Massey any time soon hadn’t occurred to me. Surely that would require some greater break into the public consciousness, or what they used to call “a hit”, and making hits has never seemed part of the National agenda. But apparently I underestimated things because The National were able to book themselves into the grandest room in the city for not one but two nights – the first of which was this past Tuesday – months before High Violet would be released and reach #3 on the Billboard charts. All this time I’d been waiting to see if they’d become big and I missed the fact that they already had.

The Antlers have found themselves on a similar upward trajectory, though theirs was even sharper. Last year’s breakout album Hospice took them from playing the Horseshoe last Fall through the Phoenix this past February supporting Editors to these two nights at Massey supporting their Brooklyn brethren. And while they were there as the openers, their set was ample evidence that they were just as suited to a setting such as this. Hospice is by no means a small-sounding record but in the live environment, The Antlers make it sound massive and as I’ve said in past reviews of their shows, they transform the record’s emotional content from anguish to something even more primal and visceral. And though I’ve seen them do it a few times now, it still packs an emotional gut punch. Given the potency of their performance and the intensity of the audience response, it’s hard to think that they’ll be playing the support role to anyone for much longer.

I’ve heard criticisms of The National’s live show as being too visually static or, more succinctly, as boring and while I protest out of principle, there’s always been some truth to it. On stage, they’ve always been very focused at the task at hand and while Matt Berninger has a certain charisma as frontman, it’s rooted in his well-documented discomfort with being on stage. It seems, however, that The National have heard some of these criticisms as well because they’ve stepped up their live game enormously. The core five piece of Berninger and the brothers Dessner and Devendorf were enhanced by a two-piece horn section and frequent collaborator Padma Newsome on keys and violin, giving them the tools to not only fully recreate the sonics of the albums but expand them even further. In particular, the subtle addition of the horns to many of the songs – as texture and punctuation, never as a solo instrument (thankfully) – gave them an extra dose of grandeur. The two hour set drew from all their releases save for their self-titled debut and ranged from the delicate (“Runaway”, “Daughters Of The Soho Riots”) to the raging (“Squalor Victoria”) to the just plain majestic (“Apartment Story”, “Fake Empire”), all of it sounding bigger, tighter and just plain better than I’ve ever heard them play. The National are truly at the top of their game, and while I’ve probably said that after each time I’ve seen them live, it’s always been true – until the next time.

The band were also far more engaging with the audience than I’d ever seen them, both between and during songs. The band engaged in more banter amongst themselves and with the audience than I think I’ve seen from them in the previous six times I’ve seen them live, joking and in Aaron Dessner’s case (I can finally tell the twins apart!) humbly acknowledging the history and significance of the room that they were now headlining. And to the latter, beyond the band simply being more animated and energetic than ever before, Berninger came off stage during “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and began pulling patrons up out of their seats, thus answering the eternal Massey question of whether to stand or not. He would again invade the audience during “Abel” and “Mr. November”, climbing through fans, over seats and even wandering out of the theatre into the hall. And on stage, his signature twitching and pacing seemed almost akin to dancing at points, though that may have just been him sliding on Massey’s polished hardwood. Certainly a far cry from the Kool Haus show, in which the tension of being between records, struggling with hammering the new material into shape and playing larger rooms for the first time was palpable… and exacerbated by the fact that Berninger seemed drunk off his ass.

In years past, the barroom setting was the perfect setting for The National’s brooding, last call barstool poetry but as their sound and audience has grown, they’ve needed a new setting and with these shows at Massey Hall – as well as those at similarly hallowed rooms such as Brooklyn Academy of Music, Radio City Music Hall and the Royal Albert Hall – it seems they’ve found one. I may not have initially thought they were at a point where they could fill rooms of this size and stature, but this show – and presumably the one last night – made it clear that they not only belong there, there’s nowhere else they should ever play.

The Toronto Sun, Chart, Spinner, Panic Manual and eye all have reviews of the show while The Toronto Star and Exclaim checked in from night two. The Montreal Gazette has a feature and has also posted the interview transcript with Matt Berninger. The Globe & Mail, Clash, Exclaim and National Post also all have interviews.

Photos: The National, The Antlers @ Massey Hall – June 8, 2010
MP3: The National – “Afraid Of Everyone”
MP3: The National – “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
MP3: The National – “So Far Around The Bend”
MP3: The National – “Fake Empire”
MP3: The National – “Son”
MP3: The National – “Beautiful Head”
MP3: The Antlers – “Two”
MP3: The Antlers – “Bear”
MP3: The Antlers – “The Universe Is Going To Catch You”
MP3: The Antlers – “On the Roof”
MP3: The Antlers – “Stairs To The Attic”
MP3: The Antlers – “Cold War”
MP3: The Antlers – “Keys”
Video: The National – “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
Video: The National – “So Far Around The Bend” (live)
Video: The National – “Mistaken For Strangers”
Video: The National – “Apartment Story”
Video: The National – “Abel”
Video: The National – “Lit Up”
Video: The National – “Daughters Of The Soho Riots”
Video: The National – “Sugar Wife”
Video: The National – “Son”
Video: The Antlers – “Bear”
Video: The Antlers – “Two”
MySpace: The National
MySpace: The Antlers

That took far too long to put together, so that’s all for today… save for this. After days of rumours and speculation, it was confirmed yesterday that The Arcade Fire would continue their string of Suburbs pre-release secret shows and stage a two-night stand this coming Friday and Saturday at the Danforth Music Hall, where they played three epic shows way back in April 2005. Tickets for the show are $37.50 after fees and go on sale at noon at the venue box office the day of each show. Cash on the barrelhead, one per customer, no savesies. Also no opener – doors are at 7, show at 8:30 sharp. Needless to say, these will be madness and people are probably already lined up. The Suburbs is out August 4 and another show for less crazy devoted fans happens August 14 on the Toronto Islands.

By : Frank Yang at 8:31 am
Category: Concert Reviews

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RSS Feed for this post4 Responses.
  1. bumpershine says:

    Nice review Frank. Funny how every time I read about Berninger’s on stage demeanor, the words “drunk” or “slighlty intoxicated” always seem to come up.

  2. thomaus says:

    Interesting juxtaposition of The National and Arcade Fire in this post. The previous best Massey Hall show for me was Arcade Fire, and now I’ve got another best with the National’s. Both swung from delicate tones to majestic walls of sound and energy. Both engaged the audience out in the aisles and seats. (And for both I had balcony seats, but it didn’t matter.)

  3. Pouya !* says:

    tnx Frank…they are sometimes good, but for my taste they had never been good enough to be added to my daily play list, well that was till this new – High Violet- album of them which is irresistible.

  4. thomaus says:

    9:15 am Friday: Two ‘Truck’N’Roll” tractor-trailers unloading in front of the Music Hall, as about a half-block of people are lined up waiting to buy tickets. People should get there well before noon if they want tickets.