The National in top form at Malkin Bowl in Vancouver
It definitely didn’t feel like it was still summertime at Malkin Bowl on Thursday. While the outdoor venue has catered many sun-drenched shows as part of its seasonal concert series, there was nary a short-shorted cutie or bottle of coconut-scented Coppertone to be seen on what was a chilly September evening. And with good reason. The sky was kind of blue, but it seemed ominously overcast, like the clouds could have ripped open into a downpour at any moment.
But you know what? Despite all that, the night was perfect. The National is just sombre enough that, somehow, a blazing sun would have sullied the first show of the band’s two-night stand in Stanley Park.
A breeze blew in as openers the Walkmen rambled into the romantic country number “Blue as Your Blood”, a song that eased the group into a terrifically terse set.
The National performs Mr. November at malkin Bowl on Thursday, September 9. Dinguya video.
Whether it was the Ennio Morricone–inflected spaghetti Western whistling solo that capped “On the Water”, or guitarist Paul Maroon’s intentionally off-kilter time shifts on “In the New Year”, the veteran quintet was in top form. The brooding set closer “All Hands and the Cook” killed, with frontman Hamilton Leithauser clutching his mike stand, wrenching out impassioned screams and one particularly divine, wavering note.
Not to be outdone, the Brooklyn-based headliners settled into their set with the equally moody “Runaway”. Singer Matt Berninger shuffled awkwardly— something he’d do all night—as six-stringer Aaron Dessner plucked away at the downer tune’s delicate melody.
A propulsive backbeat supplied by Bryan Devendorf—the only member of the group to forgo a dress shirt in favour of layered tees and bitchin’ headband—may have kicked things up a notch during “Anyone’s Ghost”, but Berninger’s down-in-the-dumps lyrics can make it a bit tough to pump your fist enthusiastically. That’s not to say the crowd didn’t love every minute of it.
Although treated mostly to tunes off the National’s most recent, and quite frankly most enjoyable album, High Violet, fans flipped out over older treasures like “Mistaken for Strangers”, “Available”, and “Slow Show”.
“It’s an honour to know that at a lot of weddings, people are hearing me sing about my dick,” the baritone-voiced Berninger quipped of the latter song’s tendency to end up being played at postnuptial parties.
The singer was naturally the centre of attention, whether he was nervously tapping his thighs while he paced back and forth or lunging at the drum kit while screaming full force. But more often than not his voice was but one part of a choir, with guitar-slinging brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner doing their parts on the mikes.
As easy as it would be to buckle down and cry over the troupe’s depression-driven anthems (“Conversation 16” finds Berninger contemplating love while his head is shoved in an oven) there’s something quite inspirational about the band.
Whether it was the set closer “Fake Empire” coming to its frenetic finale as the Dessner siblings held their axes high, or Bryce coming back on-stage during the encore to bow his guitar like an indie-rock Jimmy Page during “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, it was hard not to walk away with a smile.
Maybe it was the feeling the band’s members get when they’re on-stage together. Maybe it was the legions of fans that shouted along all night. Maybe it was that, with High Violet hitting the mainstream, the combo is having a particularly good year. Whatever it was, this was a night when the National’s sad, sad songs bummed out no one.