February 18, 2011
If you had come in near the end of the headline gig by The National and asked, “Blimey, where is the singer?” someone probably would’ve pointed somewhere at the ceiling. Because high up is Matt Berninger, on the balcony, shouting out “I won’t fuck you over, I’m Mr. November” (which added a layer during the Obama–McCain elections and arguably got another layer added to it now that his first presidential term is winding down). On the stage the band is playing Alligator closer ‘Mr. November’ sans Padma Newsome (the Australian hasn’t come along for this leg of the tour apparently) but with Owen Pallett taking over selected violin duties. How Berninger got there (over the chairs) and why he got there (to sing his heart out yet again) seems to have made way for the more immediate question of “How do I get down on that stage again to finish the last two songs?”
While browsing the festival’s website I noticed something that I had already suspected whilst visiting the festival: Bryce Dessner of The National is named as one of the curators. I had suspected this because somehow all the bands seem to be connected to one of the members in the band. As said, Owen Pallett was on the stage during the The National set, but he is also on the bill as solo artist. As are Sharon van Etten, Buke & Gas, Victoire, and Efterklang + Daniel Bjarnason & their Messing Orchestra. This is the core of the travelling circus that is touring The Netherlands under the name of Cross-Linx, which is an annually reoccurring Dutch festival which takes place in four cities over the course of as many nights. Added to this core are Peter Broderick and Basia Bulat. The main band of this festival is The National, who are not only playing as a band, but the Dessner brothers do a sort of improv on guitar as well. The Devendorf Brothers take on DJ duties in Eindhoven and Groningen, while Pallett and Rasmus are behind the decks on one of the other two nights.
Naturally, since it is a festival, some bands are programmed at about the same time. First Efterklang and orchestra take their place in rock venue De Effenaar. Because it is with an orchestra it is something that you won’t always get, and that is what I like about this festival: it takes stuff out of their comfort zone to try. I personally wouldn’t say it always succeeds. The Dessner Brothers‘ improvisation on guitar is mostly noise to me. Apparently I missed out on the more layered and structured first part, which a Dutch colleague who saw the whole concert of Phillip Glass and other contemporary classical music duly noted. By entering the small room when they were already halfway I got the short end of the stick.
In the more fancy Muziekgebouw, which usually hosts classical music and opera, I decide to not walk around and stick to the main room. Owen Pallett plays in a different part of the building, but last time in this country he was ace so there wasn’t much surprise left. Sharon van Etten, however, is playing her first gig in The Netherlands. The young singer/songwriter has the unenviable task to entertain a crowd that is obviously there to hear The National. Her fragile songs and sometimes awkward stage presence (reminding me terribly of performance artist/writer Miranda July in how she talks and the anxiety she exhumes) drown in the chatter of the crowd.
Her last song is perhaps a new song for which she hasn’t written down the arrangements yet. Totally a cappella she does it, sometimes seemingly counting the beat or hearing the riffs in her head. As I said, I love the festival and their artists for doing things out of the box, but perhaps this was so far out of the box that she wandered into hostile territory. Because if she hadn’t heard the chattering crowd before, she certainly heard it now. Let me say though that I thought she performed admirably. Her songs are nice, she has a good voice, and it does seem she kind of has the same anxious world view like a Miranda July.
Then it is The National time. A lot of the material is from their most recent album High Violet (they are touring it after all), but instead of complementing that with a sort of “greatest hits” they tend to rotate songs in and out of the setlist. It almost is like collecting baseball cards now, buying a package in the hope you get that rookie card you are still missing. The card that has eluded me for some time now is ‘About Today’, which they always manage to play the day before but not when I’m attending. Aside from the common cards (The High Violet singles, ‘Mr. November’, the singles from Boxer) they put some rarities in for every crowd.
The people in Eindhoven get some of these uncommon and rare songs as well. They are fortunate to hear ‘Wasp Nest’ off of the Cherry Tree EP and ‘Abel’, which was on the band’s Alligator release. The rare card that the erudite crowd will probably quickly sleeve and occasionally dust off is ‘The Geese of Beverly Road’, the first song of the encore which puts the narrator in a sort of late night high with Berninger singing “Love, we’ll get away with it. We’ll just run like we’re awesome, totally genius.” What comes after in the encore is also impressive, though not quite as unexpected. The band really has developed ‘Terrible Love’ into a juggernaut live, and ‘Mr. November’ is a great song that always gets the crowd going.
For the people in the audience that had never seen the band live before (or live clips of them on YouTube) were probably in for a treat as well. Because the basic blueprint is searing guitars, a propelling drum and bass, and a singer who seems to actually live in the world the songs create. Add to that the horn section of two and the help of Owen Pallett, and the band is simply an impressive sight to behold. Not that this was the most perfect performance ever. I would’ve loved Padma to be there, and although I like a bit of crowd interaction I’m simply not sure whether asking the crowd to clap along every other song is a step forward on previous shows. Personally I also would’ve preferred an encore different from the sing-along acoustic version of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’, which admittedly is highly subjective. The band itself suggested with a smile this had to be their worst night of stage banter ever, though the awkward in-jokes have their charm.
Aside from the minor caveats mentioned above, this was simply a very good show. People who are relatively new to the band get a forceful performance. The Dessners really work their guitars, and Matt certainly provides the energy on the energetic songs, and that emotional yet detached delivery on the slower ones. The more avid fans got a treat in Eindhoven with ‘The Geese of Beverly Road’ and with yet another one hundred percent effort. I think the festival in itself is a delightful little festival that gives artists the chance to just try stuff out, and I must say everything was arranged very well. Good job by all involved, really. It’s so good to occasionally be able to say that, no?