- April 2011 – Coachella, CA
- Nov 2011 – ACC
- Dec 2011 – Beacon Theatre, NY
- May 2013 – Sasquatch, WA
- Sept 2013 – Laneway, MI
- Mar 2014 – Massey Hall
- Mar 2014 – Massey Hall
- Mar 2014 – Massey Hall
- Sept 2014 – Riot Fest, TO
- Oct 2014 – Dream Serenade
- June 2015 – NXNE
- Nov 2015 – EL VY at the Opera House
- June 2016 – Hamilton Church
- June 2016 – Field Trip
- July 2015 – Eaux Claires Music Festival, WI
- Dec 2017 – Hamilton, ON
- Dec 2017 – Niagara Falls, NY
I did the big count this morning to realize that I’ve seen the National play seventeen times. That’s seventeen times across five American states and countless Toronto gigs.
I have seen them play a wide variety of settings, including:
- Formal concert setting
- Festival setting
- Full-band charity benefit setting
- Stripped-down charity benefit setting
- Church show
- Free show
Sunday’s Hamilton show was a formal concert – fancy light displays, jumbotron-type backdrops and the National’s trademark uniform, business casual attire. As the band ages, they adopt a more relaxed attire, although front-person, Matt Berninger, still black leather dress shoes. All other members seem a bit more relaxed – drummer Bryan Devendorf wore his usual trucker hat, but in highlighter yellow. The Dessners with their scrappy and wispy hair – Bryce’s just a bit more kept than Aaron’s.
Fashion aside, they played a dynamite set, comprised of mostly tunes from the darker, more monotone new album, Sleep Well Beast. They played a variety of songs from older albums, but showed no preference for their older catalogue. This tour, unlikely any other gig I’ve seen, had the agenda to promote the new material. At all past National gigs, I knew that I’d hear certain older songs. Thanks to extensive set list posting on their Instagram page, I sadly and excitedly had expectations that sets would vary and that new material would be in full swing.
Low – Very little from High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me; Despite being in the third row, the venue refused to let anyone into the front area of the stage. Everyone diligently stood on the ground floor as the National entered the stage.
High – Roomy floor section seats! When Berninger hopped into the audience for Mr. November, he knocked off Adam’s hat. I chuckled as my date was clothes-lined by my favourite band; the National’s pump up music prior to taking the stage was “Sadly Beautiful” by the Replacements and as they walked on the stage was “Shark Smile” by one of my favourites, Big Thief. I was in absolutely gleeful knowing that the National dug the same tunes that I do. I shamelessly sang along to the catchy chorus of the tune.
At thirty years old, Angel Olsen has reached a point in her very established career where she can release an album of B-Sides. With four full-length recordings to date, Olsen is an artist that varies her style, but never at the cost of quality of sound.
Being my third time seeing Olsen live, I found this time to be more playful and lighter spirited. Somehow, with minimal audience engagement and a tight hour and a half-long set. Olsen jested to the crowd “We’ll be playing here again tomorrow”, as if she was playing a regular residency at a tiny club.
Early on in the set Olsen showed some love for one of her guitarists, acknowledging that it was his birthday. Some extra hoots and woos were given and the guitarist playfully pointed at his heavy left hand that donned a ring on its fourth finger. Upon filing back on stage for the encore, the guitarist cheekily said to the crowd “No one’s sang me Happy Birthday yet.” Immediately the audience started singing and a bit disorderly, Olsen chimed in with the same song at a different pace.
I suspect part of this enjoyment and a playfulness came from a place of comfort and establishment as a musician. Unlike the last few times I’ve seen her, she wore a race car driver body suit, except in solid metallic gold. Her hair was its usual messy half up style with trimmed bangs that look like she cut them herself in a dim lit bathroom. Upon returning for her encore, she reentered the stage with the silver tinsel wig she wore in the video for “Shut Up and Kiss Me.”
The band were in their modest country band frocks – powder blue suits
A major high was watching Olsen’s band rock out. Two lead guitarists flanked the stage at both sides. Their sound was playful and fun and while separated, they sounded incredible playing off each other.
Another major high was watching the set closer (before the encore) wrap up with a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason.” Olsen asked the audience to sing along, especially to the hard-to-hit low parts, and to be nice to those singing around following it with a half thought through comment: “because it’s hard”.
A major low was helping catch a middle-aged Mom that fainted at the show. My knee-jerk reaction was to help, so I cradled her head as her lifeless body descended to the floor. She eventually woke, surprised to hear that she had briefly passed out, she immediately said that needed some fresh air. Space and sight lines are always so limited at the Phoenix. I am so grateful for intensified bookings at the Danforth Music Hall.
This sparkly gem wasn’t played last night, but it’s one of my favourite songs… ever:
It’s been a while, but here is my brief recap:
- The fancy stage lights weren’t working for the first song. Brit Daniel commented and mid-way through the opening song “Do I Have To Talk You Into It?”. Instantaneously, a sea of cellphone flashlights appeared. On its own and unsolicited – completely annoying, together and requested – fantastic.
- I’ve always called Brit Daniel effortlessly cool, but this show made me realize how cool they all are.
- I’m a huge Get Up Kids fan, so seeing bassist Rob Pope (Get Up Kids, Spoon) play in a slightly cooler band like Spoon is a total delight.
- This Song Exploder session with Spoon drummer, Jim Eno, is worth listening to. He tears apart the sweet tune “Inside Out”
- Massey Hall only allowed the first three rows to dash to the front and leave the en. They issued wristbands to all folks with tickets for that section prior to the show’s start. We were in row five. Thanks, Massey!!
The girl in front of us excitedly typed “@BigTheif…” over a dimly lit Snap Chat video. After an unsuccessfully attempt at finding the band, she erased her spelling error and changed it to the excitedly punctuated “Big Theif!!” I turned to Adam and we shared a chuckle about our Snap Chat concert buddy’s struggle to put I before E except after C. Full disclosure – I always fuck up spelling Big THIEF.
My second time seeing Big Thief and my first time seeing them knowing their material. Last October I took a risk on an empty Friday night to see them open for Frankie Cosmos, two bands I knew nothing about other than the highest regard a la Lucy Dacus. Big Thief’s twenty-five year-old vocalist/guitarist Adrianne Lenker’s taken her projects to Toronto four or five times, playing as Big Thief three times and on her own opening for Here We Go Magic in 2015. I feel the luckiest to have even caught her for half of those gigs.
A part of me hates seeing bands get big. As a teenager I used to hoard music and share it with select people I felt deserved knowing it. Now, I still enjoy music independently, but without the possessive tendencies and I’m amazed to see that a band that I only seem to like is able to sell out the Horseshoe Tavern. Perhaps I’m not socializing enough with Big Thief fans. It’s weird feeling to look around and think your little secret, the record that won’t move at your record store, is able to draw 400 people.
Big Thief played for an hour and a half, now drawing from two albums Lenker told the crowd that it’s so nice to finally be able to share the album with everyone. The newer songs almost sounded better than those played off of Masterpiece. The tunes off Capacity felt more rehearsed and cleaner – perhaps better, less risky arrangements. Capacity is noticeably absent of the grit and edge that songs like “Real Love” and “Masterpiece” have. In the second guitar solo of “Real Love” Adam turned to me and suggested they were offering a sneaky launch into “Shark Smile.” Not quite, while it was the next song, it was the almost painfully long live rendition of a recorded guitar solo.
Adam and I have spent the entire week prior to the gig singing the catchy chorus of “Shark Smile”: “And she said woo, baby, take me. And I said, woo, baby, take me too.” The show did not let us down – a reverse of what you’d expect, guitarist and backup vocalist Buck Meek shadows Lenker’s vocals throughout the verses and allows her to sing independently throughout the chorus.
Lenker isn’t a talker, which is surprising because her vocals are so strong and her singing voice is very deliberate. She throws her voice in a way that is her own and sets Big Thief apart from other folk acts. This was very apparent with Julia Jacklin’s version of “Paul,” which is beautiful, but lacks the perfect pacing that Big Thief gives it. See:
Beyond all this, Big Thief has the best lyrics that are minimal and poetic:
“Paul” – A series of promises that come off effortlessly. There are two songs in Big Thief’s set list where Lenker’s vocals come off as rapping at times (she hits in the gorgeous song “Mary” off of Capacity). I feel like audiences are drawn to this song because it comes off as a big defeat and accomplishment for singing it all the way through in one breath:
I’ll be your morning bright goodnight shadow machine
I’ll be your record player baby if you know what I mean
I’ll be your real tough cookie with the whiskey breath
I’ll be a killer and a thriller and the cause of our death
“Real Love” – the lyrics alone don’t offer much, but listening to Adrianne Lenker belt this nearing the end of the tune makes it for me:
How much blood is worth the draw?
All my perfect nights happen without expectation. Catching Big Thief was a total surprise, as I only found out they were opening for Frankie Cosmos through a Facebook post I saw around 5:30pm. I immediately scrapped all my existing plans to make this early show work. I lightly checked out Big Thief after learning that my favourite artist of 2016, Lucy Dacus, very fittingly described Masterpiece as her favourite album of the year. Trusting Dacus’ judgment I felt compelled to go to the show.
They took the stage just passed 8pm. I knew to be there early because Toronto arts heroes Collective Concerts publicly posted set times, because of this I felt good investing my time to see the show, rather than guessing set times and the investment of the entire evening. High fives to Craig Laskey and company!
Four-piece Big Thief took the stage, but only Adrianne Lenker played the tune “Lorraine.” They followed it with the tune I found to be the most accessible tune, “Real Love.” Prior to the third song, I overheard the girl behind me whisper disappointedly to her friend that those were the only two songs she knew. I could relate, as I love the anticipation of waiting for a band to play your song and the disappointment of it not being played. Not being too familiar with Big Thief meant that I didn’t arrive to the show with big expectations for certain songs, but taking comfort in knowing it would be a good show. This is rare for me, but I felt compelled to be at this show.
Much like my whispering concertmate, I fell for the first two songs – “Lorraine” was slow and bold, demonstrating Lenker’s talent on the guitar and vocals. “Real Love” is a lively tune that has one of the most compelling driving guitar solos I’ve heard in a while, which they play briefly, launch back into the song and play it again – perfection. Guitarist Buck Meek and Lenker share the responsibilities of a lead guitar player feeding off of each other’s energy and musical cues. Meek, as his surname suggests, is a thin fella with a classy look and energetic stage presence. He’s twists, sways and spazzes more than anyone in the crowd, perhaps inspiring people to move just a bit more than they normally do. Meek played an incredible cover of a song by a band called Twain, comprised of Mat Davidson formerly of the band the Low Anthem. I didn’t grab the song name, but Meek bravely played it with no accompaniment, but with a heavy country drawl that worked real well for him.
My take away from this gig is the tune “Paul.” An emotionally-charged, heartbreaking tune about leaving someone, but includes all the messy bits in between. The song’s unusally structure ends on a second variation of the song’s chorus. I’ve listened to it about 15 times today. And if my word isn’t enough, indie heavyweights Pitchfork put forward glowing words about the song:
“The happier moments described here are understood to be almost hypothetical. Musically, that puts “Paul” in this midtempo middle-ground where the guitars sound incredibly wistful, with brief flashes of smoldering pain and twinkling hope. Maybe she made the right decision, cutting him loose. Maybe she didn’t. But at least we got this beautiful song out of it, about the struggle between the head and the heart.”
Knowing the set times, I ran some errands and grabbed a few drinks at my friend’s bar between sets. I managed to catch Frankie Cosmos last three songs. I took away three thoughts: cute, she looks like my dear friend Rita and if I made music it would probably sound like this. I’d definitely see her again and listen to some of her cute tunes, but she hadn’t left a mark on me the way Big Thief did. Prior to the last song, Frankie Cosmos frontperson, Greta Kline (daughter of actor Kevin Kline), told everyone that this was their last song and they should all go see her favourite band Kero Kero Bonito play the Velvet Underground. They did not play an encore.
Perhaps I’m just reminiscing on the easier times, but the inspiration of today’s music selections has been the nineties and the early oughts. I can’t help but do the simple math to think about how long ago 1997, 1999 and 2002 were. In 1999, I was just eleven and learning about fractions and integers while Matt Pryor of the Get Up Kids were twenty-one and drinking legally for the first time. In 1999 they made one of my favourite albums ever created, Something to Write Home About.
I think the most formative years for my music taste were between 2002-2004. I listened to a whole lot of crap music, but some have stuck with me. Something to Write Home About is still incredible seventeen years later:
This is one slick song and it hasn’t lost its cool in nine years of listening:
It has been so long since I’ve visited this spot. I guess I can thank Jenny Lewis for this one, who I get to see this Saturday to celebrate ten years of Rabbit Fur Coat.
I love this performance of “Happy,” where Lewis delivers an uncertain act to a very deliberate performance (just watch her expressions throughout):
Fast forward ten years to about a month ago and soak up this delightful sing-a-long. One of the few I wouldn’t be afraid to belt out in a live show.
This article is incredible. So incredible, I pasted it below. Now I have it forever!
Matt Berninger, Lead Singer of The National, Tells Wealthsimple Why Losing $1 Million Led Him to Being a Rock Star
Quitting the dot-com world to start a band taught him about the power of good karma and creative freedom—even at the cost of a little cash.
Except in a few cases, that hasn’t really stopped. After college, I moved to New York City in 1996 and was lucky enough to land a website-design job at a firm called Nicholson NY. I was a part of the first graduating class that learned how to use HTML and create interactive graphic designs. This was the early days of websites, when you could use only four colors in a logo. I went from junior designer to creative director in a matter of a few years.
“It was that sense that it’s OK to make it up as you go along that gave me the confidence to just start a band.”
My timing was great—I got in on the ground level of the dot-com boom and was making good money. I also had crazy stock options. On paper, I was worth a million dollars before I turned 30. It was insane. I was happy to have a nice paycheck and spend the money buying records, going to shows at the Mercury Lounge, eating out every day, and drinking at bars. I lived in a huge unconverted loft in Gowanus in Brooklyn and threw massive parties and hosted art-gallery shows.
I eventually moved into my own apartment and bought myself a designer couch from the extremely high-end SoHo design store Moss. I’m a huge impulse buyer, and I had to have that god-awful couch. It made me feel like some cool, artsy New Yorker. I instantly regretted buying it. It was a terrible color; it was way too big for my place and wildly uncomfortable. I don’t think I ever sat on it. I also bought a crazy-expensive—but exceptionally cool—Gaetano Pesce lamp that I regretted less. But I still had no business buying it. I was living a certain idea of life, and those items seemed to fit.
Then it all came crashing down. The Internet bubble popped, and I spent a year and a half at my job laying off all the junior designers I’d become friends with. It was awful. All my stock-option money disappeared. I’d convinced my parents to invest in the company, so I even managed to lose them money. All the things I enjoyed about my job were gone, so eventually I laid off myself in 2003. I was in my early 30s. Granted, I continued to freelance here and there for several years, but eventually the idea of working hard for a client that I didn’t really respect got to me, and I couldn’t do it anymore.
Looking back, though, there was something about the DIY quality of those early web-design days that made me realize there was no script to life. In a way, it was very punk rock and a completely new art form. I think it was that sense that it’s OK to make it up as you go along that gave me the confidence to just start a band. I hadn’t played music for years, but I didn’t worry about whether I was qualified or not. After all, the Sex Pistols weren’t necessarily great musicians, but they did reinvent the idea of a band.
My friends and I formed The National and started playing whatever gigs we could get. I decided that to be a real band, you needed to play shows and have an album. So I put my credit card down and charged the entire first album. I was happy to do it. I thought it was great that we’d be able to have something that I could listen to that we’d made ourselves. Had I valued money more at that point, I probably wouldn’t have done it.
If my timing in starting out in the dot-com world was perfect, my timing in starting a band was horrible. We released our first album, The National, in the early 2000s, the same year bands like The Strokes, Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, The Walkmen, and TV on the Radio were all creating albums and performing in New York City. They were cool as shit; we were just figuring out how to be a band. If you look at old photographs of us, you can tell we didn’t know how to look cool. It should have been depressing, listening to their albums and seeing them live and comparing it with our situation, but I was just happy to have an album. I thought it was great that we’d actually done something, and that was enough.
I think you have to be pretty fearless when it comes to creating anything. We toured Europe a lot from 2002 to 2004 and came back with far less money than we’d started with. It would actually get depressing. I never loved traveling, and I felt homesick. We stayed in disgusting hostels and trucker hotels where they literally hosed down the rooms. Meanwhile, my friends back in New York were starting to buy houses. But ultimately it didn’t matter. We all knew we could pull the plug if we wanted to—go back to our regular jobs, freelance, or liquidate a 401K. But we forged ahead. It helped that I was never completely broke and never really faced the prospect of not being able to pay rent.
Timing got a little bit better for us when we released our third album, Alligator, in 2005. Suddenly all these music blogs and sites that shared information about bands appeared. There were dangers in that world—certain sites seemed to take joy in putting a band on a pedestal and then killing them off so it could become a weird, power blood sport of indie rock. We were never on a pedestal, but through word of mouth, we started getting more festival gigs, which were not only lucrative but also increased our fan base. We nearly missed our first, most important festival show in the summer of 2007 and had to ask Cold War Kids to leave their gear on stage since we didn’t have time to set up our instruments. They were kind enough to help us, and we performed. We would have been in debt for a while if we’d missed that show.
We started making a little bit of money, but when there was a choice, we always opted for creative control over higher paychecks. We signed with a label that didn’t insist on money-making hits to recoup big advances. That let us do what we wanted to do and let us define our sound. That was particularly true of our fourth album, Boxer, in 2007. We also noticed that the bands that lasted the longest were often the most respectful, helpful, and professional, so we followed suit. That stuff matters when you’re trying to chase a dream and everything is pretty dismal and exhausting.
In some ways, I haven’t changed my attitudes about money from when I was a teenager. A few years ago, I poured tons of my own money into a documentary that was mostly about my brother because I thought it would make a great film and be an awesome thing to have. It was never about making money. I think my parents instilled that in me a bit—money was never a symbolic image of success, so I never had any anxiety about it growing up. I was happy to spend the money. I still am. In fact, I often insist on spending the extra 20% on something if I know it’s going to last longer and make me happy. Granted, at this point I’m mostly just talking about nice socks and underwear. Which I recommend to anyone, regardless of your financial situation.
– As told to Craig Charland exclusively for Wealthsimple