Over the years, it’s been a good cultural rule of thumb to try to check out bands that have multiple-night engagements at First Avenue, especially if they’re not local (which can artificially pad the house). It generally means the band has enough sense of venue history to know of First Avenue’s exalted place in the pantheon, and that the group has enough visceral connection to their fans to want to get sweaty and informal and (if you feel like it) boozy over two or three nights rather than consolidating the experience into a more antiseptic single gig at the State Theatre or Northrop Auditorium.It also generally means that the band is crystallizing into the sweet spot between indie darlings and more mainstream acclaim, usually on the strength of a breakthrough album or two.
The National, a quintet comprising a doleful lead singer and two sets of brothers, raised in Ohio and based in Brooklyn, is playing sold-out gigs at First Avenue the next two nights, in what should be memorable events for those prescient enough to score tickets.
They have earned this cultural sweet spot in undramatic fashion; their latest, fifth record, “High Violet,” isn’t a breakthrough so much as further validation that they are reliable enough to make your fandom feel like a friendship. Put another way, The National are a subtly compelling band because their style and identity are so organic, so thoroughly true to themselves. There isn’t a huge disjunction between a song from their first or second record and a song from their fourth or fifth. But if you know all five, the arc of maturation, in all its nuance, is crystal clear.
The sound, too, is distinct but subtle. There are classic American and British influences; the songcraft of Wilco and REM, undercut by the doomy, droogy swirl of Joy Division. Singer Matt Beringer’s flat-toned yet expressive baritone recalls Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, and Morrissey, albeit sans most of the latter’s arch self-absorption. Beringer is like Mad Men’s Don Draper: Aware of the dolor around him, and his contribution to it, but too smart to either dismiss or embrace an existential crisis.
Guitarists Bryce and Aaron Dessner don’t surge to the fore very often, but their abiding sense of rhythm and spare but important penchant for ornamentation is one reason The National can remain an enjoyable listening experience despite a preponderance of mundane and/or downbeat subject matter. But the star of the instrumental side of the band is drummer Bryan Devendorf, who has a chance to become a hall of fame timekeeper along the lines of Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones or ?uestlove of The Roots — he’s that good, and that well integrated in the mix.
Here is Devendorf kicking things off on a rendition of “Bloodbuzz, Ohio,” off the new record that was performed 9 months before the record’s release.
Here is a beautiful version of another new song, “England,” performed in May at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (apologies for the brief ad from a lousy credit card company before the video).
Here is The National’s MySpace page, with songs from their last three records.
The National, at First Avenue tonight and tomorrow night, Aug. 5 and 6; doors open at 6 p.m. tonight and 8 p.m. tomorrow; tickets are $25 in advance and $28 at the door, except that both shows are sold out.