Every so often, you see a band live and everything snaps into focus.
While a bad live performance can reveal a band’s flaws, a good live performance has the opposite effect: it can reveal aspects of the music that are not readily apparent from the studio recordings. The National’s performance in Dallas was good. Very good. It was the performance of a band at the top of their game. While I’ve been a fan of The National for some time, after finally seeing them live, I can say they are now an all-time favorite. Yes, I enjoyed the show.
It shouldn’t be surprising that The National is a great live band. The National has spent their decade-and-a-half-long career honing and fine tuning their craft. By now, they’ve certainly put in their Gladwellian, Beatles-In-Hamburg 10,000 hours. It’s somewhat unusual (particularly nowadays) to say that a band’s sixth album is its best. But this year’s Trouble Will Find Me is unquestionably The National’s best album. Boxer was certainly solid, High Violet had two of their best songs (“Bloodbuzz, Ohio” and “Conversation 16″), and old-school fans love Alligator, but Trouble is consistently better from start to finish than anything else the band has done. Live, the songs are a revelation. (The setlist relied heavily on new material–they played all but three songs from the new album. You’ll hear no complaints from me on that point.)
There’s a staid professionalism from The National that you don’t always see from their indie-rock peers, from the suits they wear on stage to the flawless light and sound production. This is also reflected in the musicianship. Bryan Devendorf’s complex drumming is precise perfection, and the Dessner brother’s guitars combine impressively. In contrast, Matt Beringer’s manic stage presence works as a cathartic foil. Beringer roamed the stage, stood on the barrier, pounded his mic stand, and occasionally broke from his smooth baritone to scream lyrics, as he did with the lyrical coda to “Conversation 16″: “I was afraid I’d eat your brains, ‘CAUSE I’M EVIL!!” It worked, perhaps better than you might think.
I can’t say the same about Tame Impala. Necessary caveats: 1) I was only a little familiar with Tame Impala’s music before the show. 2) Tame Impala is, to my ears, hardcore psychedelic. Unlike artists that are merely surreal (say, Robyn Hitchcock or Captain Beefheart), to truly understand a hardcore psychedelic music, it probably helps to have pharmacological assistance. I was completely sober. 3) I’ve never had the patience for songs that jam on for ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes. It’s just a matter of personal preference. On this score, I’m not the one to judge Tame Impala’s performance. I’ll just leave it at this: if’n you like that sort of thing, you may have enjoyed this. Maybe you’d have enjoy it a lot.