The National at the Riviera

The National’s latest record, High Violet, is shaping up as one of my 2010 favorites. Like the band’s previous album, Boxer, it’s an almost perfect distillation of what makes the National so great: moody music with tension boiling just below the surface. The melodies may seem minimalist at first, as Matt Berninger’s conversational baritone spells out the lyrics in small gestures, the tune moving up and down by only a few notes. That first impression is deceiving, and the National’s melodies start burrowing their way into your memory.

The National played a sold-out concert Sunday (Sept. 26) at the Riviera Theatre, which was a fine opportunity for me to catch a full-length show, in contrast to my truncated experience watching the National at Lollapalooza. (Thanks to music blogger for letting me use his ticket to the Riviera show, which I’d failed to plan for.) The concert drew heavily from High Violet and Boxer, with just a few older songs, including “Abel” and “Daughter of the SoHo Riots” from 2005’s Alligator.

In concert, the National raised the tension level of its most subdued songs. The harmony vocals were especially strong, as several members of the band joined their voices together with Berninger on those unforgettable choruses. The crowd sang along at key moments, too. But Berninger was the focus of attention for most of the night. Berninger began the concert closely hugging his microphone, but as the show went on, he became more animated, bouncing his microphone stand like a toy. During instrumental passages, he paced the stage, raising his clenched fists, like someone fighting off voices in his head. Berninger’s dance is awkward, lacking the typical rock-star moves, but it feels authentic. He seems to be expressing the emotion and energy he’s feeling from these songs in the only way he can. A singular rock-band frontman, he’s fascinating to watch.

It was thrilling how the National’s songs built to dramatic climaxes, and the show ended with an encore featuring three of the best: Another track from Alligator, “Mr. November,” in between two of my favorites from High Violet: “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” and “Terrible Love.” During that final song, Berninger walked out into the audience, singing out in the midst of the crowd’s voices for several minutes. / (The National website)

The Riviera concert began with a nice opening set by Owen Pallett (the artist formerly known as Final Fantasy). After the National, I ran down to Metro, arriving in time to catch 45 minutes of the concert by Caribou. The psychedelic electronic rock was a cool way to cap off an evening of great music.

I did not take photos Sunday night, but here are my previous pictures of these artists:
The National at Lollapalooza 2010
The National at Lollapalooza 2008
Caribou July 12, 2010, at the Pritzker Pavilion
Caribou at Pitchfork 2008
Caribou April 11, 2008, at the Empty Bottle
Owen Pallett April 10, 2010, at Lincoln Hall

Owen Pallett at Lincoln Hall

I saw two concerts on Saturday night (April 10) — both of them by singer-songwriters who used to call themselves by a stage name. After seeing the early show at the Hideout by the artist formerly known as Smog (Bill Callahan), I headed up to Lincoln Hall for the artist formerly known as Final Fantasy (Owen Pallett).

I had always thought the Final Fantasy name was rather silly — bringing to mind the computer game of the same name. A few months ago, Pallett announced he was dropping the name to “definitively distinguish my music from Square/Enix’s games.” Good idea. And so, his latest album arrived as mp3 files with “Final Fantasy” listed as the artist’s name, but by the time it actually came out, his publicist was saying that it was an Owen Pallett album, not a Final Fantasy album.

Either way, Heartland is filled with some alluringly beautiful orchestral pop music. I haven’t studied the lyrics enough to follow the narrative that apparently runs through the songs, but Pallett has said: “The songs themselves form a narrative concerning a farmer named Lewis and the fictional world of Spectrum. The songs are one-sided dialogues with Lewis, a young, ultra-violent farmer, speaking to his creator.”

In concert, Pallett performs in a style very much reminiscent of Andrew Bird, using looping pedals to build chords and counterpoint with his violin and keyboard playing. He was assisted at Lincoln Hall by guitarist and drummer Thomas Gill, but it was very much Pallett’s show. Pallett apologized for his voice, which was apparently a bit rougher than usual, but any difference was barely noticeable.

Pallett played one brand-new song, “Don’t Stop the Party on My Account,” and he finished off his encore with a cover of Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” — a joking reference, perhaps, to Pallett’s old stage name? Before playing the song, Pallett jokes, “If I got to a show and don’t see any humiliation, I feel like I want my money back. So here you go.” It wasn’t humiliating, but it was rather odd to see an indie-rock artist at Lincoln Hall doing a Mariah Carey song.

Like Pallett, the opening act was from Canada, and they had the antlers to prove it. It was a cool band called Snowblink, playing songs with fairly minimal arrangements (and a set of antlers on one of the guitars). Judging from the somewhat confusing information posted on the band’s myspace page, there’s a revolving lineup of several musicians, with Daniela Gesundheit being the main singer. On Saturday, it was just her on vocals and guitar plus one other guy. Interesting stuff.

See my photos of Owen Pallett and Snowblink.