Thursday, December 8, 2011

Concert Review: The National, Wye Oak and Local Natives at the Aragon Ballroom, 12/6/2011

Last Tuesday night, Brooklyn based indie rockers, the National, played a sold out show at Uptown's Aragon Ballroom.

Even though the National has been one of my favorite bands for about six year now, I never quite got around to seeing them live.  At first, it was just pure laziness on my part, but for the last couple of years there have been some serious obstacles in my way: like only playing Chicago for Lollapalooza (port-a-potties and poor sound quality, I think not) or playing the exact same night AND time as my other favorite Ohio rock band- the Black Keys.  Excuses excuses, I know, but I was getting seriously worried I'd never see them live. So when the Aragon gig was announced, I was super excited that not only were the National playing Chicago again (and indoors!), but they had two bands I liked a lot opening for them! 

Baltimore duo Wye Oak started off the evening a little bit before seven.  Their album, Civilian, was one of my favorite albums of this year, but I was even more impressed with their live show. Jenn Wasner's vocals really popped in a live setting and her guitar playing was phenomenal. The band had incredible sound for a two person outfit, especially considering the Aragon's barn like acoustics and that poor Wasner spent most of the set being half- electrocuted by her mike.

Next up were L.A. based indie poppers Local Natives. Out of the bands, they were probably the one I was least excited to see. I enjoyed their album, Gorilla Manor. But they are a little too upbeat and accessible for me to listen to on a regular basis.  But in concert, they were adorable and the audience really enjoyed their set.   Local Natives singer Taylor Rice had an easy going and affable stage presence (and looked vaguely like James Franco with a mustache).  It was probably smart to have them sandwiched in between two more lugubrious acts.  They were the only band that you could dance to and not look weird (though many tried and failed to prove otherwise). 

Before the National set, they had a live video of the band hanging out backstage.  It had a strange effect on the audience.  At first we calmly watched the video, then slowly started cheering louder and louder to cajole the band out of their dressing room- like a pre-concert encore. The band took the stage around nine and played for a solid hour and a half.  Singer Matt Berninger looked sharp in a suit coat, vest, tie, jeans and oxfords.  Casually holding a wine glass in his hand through the evening, he looked like the dapperest man in indie rock (Hamilton Leithauser better up his game).  The band opened with "Runaway" from their most recent album, High Violet.  But their set drew from throughout their career, including tracks from their more obscure early records like "Murder Me Rachael" from Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers and "Son" from their self-titled debut. 

Though Matt Berninger's baritone was instantly familiar, the band sounded a lot bigger in concert.  They were accompanied by two horn players, who gave the National's sound an occasional gypsy flair.  Thanks perhaps to all the wine, Berninger had an unrestrained stage presence, which came in handy during some of the bands early screamer songs like "Abel" and "Mr. November."  The band's bigger anthems like "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and "Fake Empire" really filled the entire room with sound.  However, even intimate tracks like "Green Gloves" and "About Today" sounded amazing.  While I've always been impressed with the musicians in the band, Aaron and Bryce Dessner's guitar work was truly remarkable live (at one point one of the brothers broke out what looked to be a violin bow), as were Bryan Devendorf's pounding drums.  Scott Devendorf's bass work gave the band's sound a real fullness.

The vibe for the National's set was pretty casual.  The band seemed to have several family members in the audience and the onstage banter was pretty light and off-the-cuff.  The stage set up included a large screen showing close ups of the band on stage, which gave the show a pretty intimate feel for such a large venue.

The evening was more or less made for me when the National played my favorite song, "Geese of Beverly Road."  However, the true highlight of the evening was when Berninger staged dived during the performance of "Terrible Love" (fan girl alert:  I totally touched his leg!).  Somehow he didn't seem to miss a beat while being passed along in the hands of strangers.  They ended the night with an unplugged version of "Vanderlyle Cry Baby Geeks", joined on stage by members of both Wye Oak and Local Natives.

It was an awesome night, I'd definitely recommend checking out the band when they return to Chicago.  In the meantime, if you haven't heard one of their albums, I give my highest praises to Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet.