VIDEO: The National at the House of Blues | June 2, 2010

The National performing "Slow Show." Click here to see live concert photos by Derek Kouyoumjian
At the National's sold-out Wednesday show at the House of Blues, blue lights dimmed on an empty stage as a swell of piped-in instrumentals hearkened the band's imminent arrival. Well, not entirely imminent. The National let the packed crowd wait it out for a good two minutes or so, allowing the energy in the venue to surge to a calculated crescendo before strolling onstage. (Considering that these guys have been in the business of producing smooth, dark, impeccable alt-rock since before a lot of their peers had their first Walkman, they know what they're doing.) Frontman Matt Berninger, nattily dressed in Brooklyn's answer to the three-piece suit, ambled up to the mic with a chalice of wine in hand. OK, it was a glass, but in the name of poetic license, let's call it a chalice. Dude's got some serious gravitas, is what I'm saying. And if this show was any indication, he's also got a strong taste for the sauce.
The set kicked off with "Start a War," as Berninger's unmistakable, rich baritone cut through the crowd's expectant hush. They followed up with "Mistaken for Strangers," after Berninger took a break to drink deeply of his glass chalice. The instruments onstage included not one, but two trumpets in the capable hands of two young guys clad in what I believe to be identical plaid shirts. Someone offstage tossed the bassist a pair of bright orange maracas for a rendition of "Squalor Victoria" that held the crowd in throes of delight. I, too, always appreciate the addition of maracas.
The majority of the roughly 90-minute show was dedicated to a selection of crow-favorites pulled mostly from 2007's Boxer and 2005's Alligator, though more than a few relics made it onto the set list. Surprisingly, the band made little fanfare of their recently dropped album, 2010's High Violet. "That's a pop number for you," Berninger deadpanned, making one of the few off-hand references to their fifth studio album after finishing "Anyone's Ghost." "Top of the charts," he continued, polishing off his seemingly self-replentishing glass of wine. "Why do you keep saying that?" guitarist Bryce Dessner queried, in what appeared to be an honest question, albeit one that remained unanswered.
The National performing "Secret Meeting."
Dessner loosened up as the night wore on, peppering the evening's interludes with a variety of non sequiturs. At one point, he sternly admonished the crowd: "Do not talk during melodrama." (I had to go on a google search to ensure that, indeed, the National's repertoire does not include a track entitled "Melodrama.") No matter; the crowd ate up every bit of the band's consistently strong performance. And while talking may not be permitted during melodrama, no such moratoriums apply to singing during "Fake Empire." The entire House swayed and sang along to the closing song.
The band reappeared for four encores, after a brief pause during which Berninger may or may not have shot a quick IV of wine straight into his veins. Having long shed his suit jacket, Berninger returned ready to get down -- and stay down. Stumbling over an amp, he half-crawled to the edge of the stage, where he teetered, leaning into the feverish crowd as he howled into the mic. Soon enough, it was man overboard. Berninger leaped into the fray, forging a path through a melee of frenzied fans, as a roadie crouched onstage, feeding him what I first thought was a mic cord but turned out to be more of a lifeline. From there, he proceeded to deliver one of the most rock-n'-roll performances I've seen at the HoB in quite a while. Climbing atop the bar at stage right, he stomped and hollered, kicking over empty beer cans as the crowd fairly convulsed in delight.

All good (rowdy) things must come to an end, however, and his handler eventually managed to reel him back onstage. "Thank you!" he yelled -- ostensibly to the crowd, but perhaps to the cord-wielding equipment handler as well. Given the seamless efficiency with which the lifeline was whipped out and fed through the teeming crowd, I suspect Berninger's end-of-show antics were not distinctive to Wednesday night's performance. Not that a single person in attendance minded one bit.


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