The National at The Middle East Downstairs on June 21

A Review of The National at The Middle East Downstairs on June 21, 2007

, Staff Writer

I have to admit, I was not prepared for The National at the Middle East on Thursday night. The band’s albums Alligator and Boxer, while excellent, are often complex, dark, and subdued, only occasionally climbing out of the gloom and reaching for the harder edges of rock. But in a live setting the band was loose, frisky, and loud; and I liked it.

With a sold out two night stand in Boston, an early candidate for album of the year in Boxer, and a forthcoming world festival tour, its safe to say that The National have arrived. After being outshined during their last tour by openers Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (CYHSY), this time around the buzz is for the headlining act, and rightfully so.

The band kicked off the set with an earnest version of “Start a War” off Boxer. Aaron Dessner picked out chords on the bass as the song built relentlessly towards his brother Bryce’s slightly discordant guitar solo, which took the song to a satisfying place just past album-faithful. It was a trend that would continue throughout the night, as the live versions of the songs exceeded the band’s meticulously crafted studio compositions.

Drummer Bryan Devendorf anchored “Mistaken for Strangers” with precision work on his minimalist drum kit, banging out a complicated rhythm with only a tom, floor tom, bass, snare, hi-hat, and one cymbal, as the band displayed its mastery of tension and release. “Secret Meeting,” the night’s first offering from Alligator, got the sold-out crowd moving.

Devendorf continued his perfectly nonchalant drumming on “Brainy” and Bryce Dessner contributed another excellent guitar solo, culminating in frenetic strumming, as The National made it clear that they were on top of their game. The crowd got its chance to respond to the band’s energy, singing along with Matt Berninger on the anthemic chorus of “Baby, We’ll be fine.” Five band members and countless audience members shouting, “I’m so sorry for everything” was the first peak moment of the night, but it would not be the last.

“All the Wine” received a warm response as Berninger announced he was not drinking wine, but in fact a Cape Codder. “Racing Like a Pro” was the first chance for the band to show off a true slow song, and the touring multi-instrumentalist took the opportunity to show off his fierce violin playing. The National picked the energy right back up, employing auxiliary percussion to propel “Squalor Victoria,” and Berninger sang like a man coming unhinged.

After two more songs, including the impressive “Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National delivered a version of “Fake Empire,” the first song on Boxer, which was nothing less than perfect. “Empire” led into the triumphant “Mr. November.” Berninger, now completely unhinged, teetered on the edge of the stage, screaming the chorus over the throng of delighted fans.

The band took a brief encore break and returned to the stage, playing an introspective song before absolutely rocking out as hard as they possibly could for “Abel,” then returning to their bread and butter of texture, tension, and release of “About Today” for an appropriate climax.

As the band left the stage, the house system played the theme from “Rocky.” The show, which drew heavily from Boxer, did feel like a victory for the band, who have persevered valiantly over four albums and are finally reaping the rewards that their music deserves. It may be somewhat trendy to like The National now, as it was cool to like CYHSY two years ago. But don’t let that stop you from getting into some great music.

Openers Shapes and Sizes came down from Canada packing their noisy, scattered indie rock. With the attention span of The Fiery Furnaces, the band’s compositions skipped quickly from Deerhoof-like shards of dissonance to more listener friendly weirdness a la Wolf Parade (the male lead singer sounded more than a little like Spencer Krug).

The band’s strongest song was “Island’s Gone Bad” off their self-titled album, which featured an acapella freak-out breakdown. The band rotated around three microphones for the performance and at times employed a banjo, and co-lead singer Caila Thompson-Hannant brought the noise part of noise rock to the fore. It may have been incongruous with The National’s show, but different doesn’t mean bad. Shapes and Sizes looked like they could more than hold their own with their own kind of crowd

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