The National House of Blues October 8, 2010
Relive The National's performance via the photos in our slideshow.
Houston crowds like to party. The National does not.
These two seemingly indisputable musical facts led Aftermath to imagine all sorts of nightmare scenarios for the Brooklyn band's visit to House of Blues Friday night, from the phantasmagorical - all the negative energy in the room leads to the first-ever case of spontaneous onstage combustion - to the mundane but all too plausible: Fed up with trying to compete with the crowd noise, temperamental front man Matt Berninger simply stalks offstage in disgust.
Neither of those things happened, or even came close. Instead, we watched as a much larger crowd than we expected - not everyone went to Austin City Limits this weekend, apparently - settled in and shut up for a generous set by a band that, as icy and distant as it can come across on record, was just as warm, engaging and surprisingly soulful live.
It was the soulful part that impressed us the most. Preferring to see how an artist's new work strikes us live and then investigate the recording should we like what we hear, Aftermath admits we have limited listening experience with The National's new album, High Violet - along with Arcade Fire's The Suburbs and Vampire Weekend's Contra, one of three so-called indie-rock LPs to debut in the Billboard Top 10 this year.
And so, starting with opener "Runaway," none of the Violet songs quite contradicted the generally held belief that The National is the principal heir to college-rock's great brooders of the '80s, chiefly R.E.M. and Joy Division. "Brooding," in fact, was just about the first word we wrote in our notebook, with the tag "that word will be used a lot."
Actually, it wasn't. Almost as quickly, we picked up on how the complement of horns The National brought along both softened the songs' sharp edges and lengthened the shadows they cast. We had to adjust our vantage point in HOB's crowded Music Hall to make sure the horns were really there, but indeed they were, adding a chorale-ish air to "Runaway," but also making "Anyone's Ghost" and "Mistaken for Strangers" sound somehow more haunted than they would have otherwise.
By "Bloodbuzz Ohio," about the Cincinnati natives' home state, The National was in a warm cocoon of sound that carried through the set's midsection ("Afraid of Everyone," "Available," "Apartment Story"). Each song grew progressively brighter until, ironically, "Sorrow" was poppy enough to make us wonder if it could be some bizarre time-warp result of Phil Spector producing Joy Division's Closer instead of the Ramones' End of the Century around 1980 or so.
But it was the next song, "Abel," that was the night's real keeper. As Aftermath was wondering whether or not that was really one of our lost '80s heroes, the Lightning Seeds, we were hearing in the ever more animated Berninger's vocals, the horns were pumping, the hollowbody guitars were vibrating, and the singer was snapping out the lyrics like the alligator of the band's 2005 album.
"Abel" began a gradual crescendo that grew through the set's last three songs - Alligator's "Daughters of the Soho Riots," the new "England" and "Fake Empire," the jewel of The National's previous album Boxer - that left Aftermath and the rest of the crowd spent and satisfied.
To borrow a phrase from Texas' musical patron saint Doug Sahm, these days you just can't win in indie unless you've got a lot of soul.
Personal Bias: Aftermath found the surprisingly intimate HOB Music Hall a much better setting than the only other time we've seen The National live, outdoors during the day at the 2007 Austin City Limits Music Festival. No surprise there, really.
The Crowd: Well-dressed, lots of dark colors, and considerate.
Overheard In the Crowd: Very little. Well done, Houston.
Random Notebook Dump: At one point, the band mentioned the infamous Walter's on Washington/Two Gallants brawl of 2006. Although that stain will apparently never completely fade away, nights like Friday can only help.
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Runaway Anyone's Ghost Mistaken for Strangers Bloodbuzz Ohio Slow Show Afraid of Everyone Available Conversation 16 Apartment Story Sorrow Abel Daughters of the Soho Riots England Fake Empire
Start a War Mr. November Terrible Love Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks