The National w/This is the Kit
Paramount Theater, Seattle
November 27, 2017
Words by Graham Isaac
Photos by Eric Tra
In a room full of people who I did not know, but looked like people I did, or could, a slight unease and growing anticipation were both palpable.
Folks milled around, hands in their pockets or fixing their hair. Women twenty years my senior and ten years my junior held newly purchased T-shirts with minimal design elements up to their face for selfies. A couple in hardcore hoodies walked hand in hand up the aisle, purposefully avoiding acknowledgement of the vast sea of generic plaids and beards surrounding them. I spotted several people wearing t-shirts bearing the names of esoteric works of literature. More than a couple variations of anti-Trump sentiment, from the righteously indignant, to the purely vulgar. With the exception of the t-shirt ladies, who were stoked, no one seemed to be having a good time – yet.
It was during this waiting for The National to take the stage at the Paramount that I wondered if this must be what it’s like to attend a function for the Democratic Party. All the complaints leveled against The National (for the record: one of my favorite bands. ALSO one of my favorite bands to poke fun at) and their audience can and have been leveled at the DNC.
Let’s try a couple for fun:
________ are full of well rendered sentiment, lots of good ideas, more dynamic than people give them credit for, but will remain at odds with America at large unless they can learn to connect on a more visceral level.
______ are a lot better than most of the rest of what’s out there, but way too into themselves and their insular culture of references and cross-references.
______ are a bunch of rich, smug, nerds who deserve to get punched in the face.
See!? Works for either. After a charming, Celtic-music inflected folk-rock set by British band This is the Kit, the crowd continued filling, and milling, until the lights went down and the screens above the stage showed the band coming down the stairs backstage. Bob Dylan’s “Most of the Time” played as they entered to cheers from the crowd. As the background music faded out, frontman Matt Berninger, in a black button down shirt and glasses, addressed the crowd: “Hello. Thanks for being here. This is called “Nobody Else Will Be There,” and the band launched into the first track of their recent record, Sleep Well Beast.
The set, from there on out, was a mix of the new record (about 9 of the 12 songs off it were played) favorites from the past four albums and a few non-album goodies. Throughout the night, the band alternated between the atmospheric ballads that dominate 2/3rds of the new record, more percussive works, and a couple full-on rockers. Moodier new cuts like “Walk It Back” and “Carin at the Liquor Store” taking on new layers in a live setting; when Berninger introduced the latter, there were squeals of delight from the woman behind me. People were definitely having fun.
However, which people were having the most fun definitely depended on the song; the guy beside me who spent most of “Afraid of Everyone” (an absolute National-style banger, live, take that how you will) and the newer, trash-talking burner “Turtleneck” looking at his phone was mesmerized for the performances of “About Today” and “I Need My Girl,” though the latter inspired one of several singalongs.
Through it all, Scott and Bryan Devendorf (rhythm section) and Bryce and Aaron Dessner (rotating keyboards, guitars and sequencers) kept things rolling along like a well-oiled machine as Berninger did the work of connecting to the audience and keeping folks engaged. Like, say, Barrack Obama, to the DNC, if we want to keep torturing that analogy, though I’m pretty sure Obama never ran through the crowd of the Paramount, near-beheading folks with an extra long mic cable while howling a song about infidelity. Or spent a night tossing used red solo cups into the audience. Or introduced a key policy position by saying “man, I’m such a shitty parent.”
But there are things you can do in an indie rock band, even one known for stately and tasteful arrangements, that you simply can’t as a politician. As the night drew to a close, the encore had The National at both extremes; “Mr. November” and “Terrible Love” displayed the full-bore guitar rock that the band can wield effectively at times, whereas the unplugged, un-miced singalong of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” displayed the heartstring-tugging intimacy they’re capable of evoking, even in a crowded theater. By the end of the night, everyone had gotten at least a little of what they wanted, and even more, everyone skeptical had been convinced.
We’ll see if the DNC can pull off a similar trick in coming years.