At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, December 2
If you want a sign that the National has nothing to prove to anyone at this point in its career, consider the fact that the Brooklyn (by way of Cincinnati) band started the second of two sold-out Vancouver concerts with "Driver, Surprise Me". By kicking off with a 2005 B-side that the group had played fewer than a couple dozen times before—and only one other time on the tour promoting the National's latest album, Sleep Well Beast—the group seemed to be saying "You might not know this one, but that's okay. You'll just have to trust us."
That level of self-assuredness was evident throughout a show that lasted roughly two hours and was heavily weighted with tracks from Sleep Well Beast. Nearly two decades into its existence, the National is seemingly at the height of its strength as a live act, equally adept at delivering the subtle tension of "Walk It Back" and the full-bore, jagged indie rock of "Mr. November". The band's performance at its second-night QE set was always tight and powerful but rarely flashy. There were moments, though, that elevated the evening into the realm of the sublime and memorable. These included Aaron Dessner's effortlessly fluid guitar solo in "The System Only Sleeps In Total Darkness"; every time touring sidemen Kyle Resnick and Ben Lanz (both men are members of Beirut) picked up trumpet and trombone, respectively; and the times frontman Matt Berninger descended into the audience to sing, which was exciting for all involved, not least because it necessitated teamwork on the part of concertgoers and road crew alike to ensure that the lanky vocalist's comically long microphone cable didn't get hopelessly tangled or behead anyone.
Toward the end of the show, someone in the crowd asked Berninger how the Saturday-night audience compared to the previous night's. He assured her that we were "twice as better". Setlist.fm tells me, however, that we got one fewer song than Friday night's audience, who also got to hear "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks". I am totally not jealous. Really. After all, we were treated to a crushing version of "Afraid of Everyone"—arguably among the National's finest compositions—and also a delicately wrought and beautiful rendition of the traditional Scottish folk tune "Peggy-O", which the National recorded for a Grateful Dead tribute album last year but almost never performs live. So there.
No, the National didn't have anything to prove. The same couldn't be said of opening act This Is the Kit, which has been around for almost as long as the headliner but has kept a low profile outside of frontwoman Kate Stables's native U.K. Stables is blessed with a marvelous voice, equal parts Polly Jean Harvey and Sandy Denny, and her songwriting has an evocatively timeless folk-rock quality; the songs sound as if they could have come out in 1977 or 1997 rather than 2017.
This Is the Kit is clearly a favourite of Aaron Dessner's. He has worked with the act in the studio and released a couple of their records on Brassland, the label he runs with his brother (and fellow National member) Bryce. Dessner came on-stage mid-set and joined This Is the Kit for a few songs, most notably trading guitar licks with Neil Smith during a particularly incendiary version of "Hotter Colder".
Whatever Stables and company might have had to prove to Vancouver, they proved it.More