The National at Riverside Theater
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The National has paid Milwaukee several visits over the years, climbing the ladder of local venues from the old Onopa Brewing Co.—where the band played for a handful of fans and lots of empty barstools in support of 2003’s Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers—to two ecstatically well-received shows at the Pabst Theater in 2007 and 2009, up through its biggest local show yet Wednesday night at the Riverside Theater. Just as The National’s stunning 2010 album High Violet has served as a commercial and artistic payoff for 10 years of slow but steady ascension, last night’s Riverside concert confirmed that these scruffy expatriate Midwesterners have molded themselves into one of the most stirring, vital, and elegant bands of their generation right under our noses.
I can imagine the massive eye roll that the word “elegant” probably just triggered among The National’s detractors, who misinterpret the band’s long-fuse intensity and carefully considered songs as signs of insufferable indie pretentiousness. No band is labeled “boring” more often (or more unjustly) than The National, which has long had the audacity to think in terms of albums, not just a bunch of songs that can boiled down to grabby 30-second iTunes clips. High Violet is The National’s lushest album yet, and on stage the band was joined by a two-man horn section to recreate the record’s subtle marriage of moody rock dynamics and orchestral pomp. High Violet highlights like “Terrible Love” and the epic “England” were recorded with large theaters like the Riverside in mind, and live they lifted The National into a new stratosphere of emotional uplift.
While it’s easy to dwell on the craft of The National—particularly how multi-instrumentalist Padma Newsome gently weaves waves of keyboards and virtuosic violin licks between Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s delicately interlocking guitar parts—the fact this is a genuine rock ’n’ roll outfit given to drunken-ass rambling and shambling in a live setting shouldn’t be overlooked by such potentially precious matters. After making a mock-rock-star crack about the oversized ice bucket where his personal supply of champagne was chilling—“This is unacceptable!”—frontman Matt Berninger proceeded to drink himself into a fine stupor at a generous, one-oversized-glass-per-song clip. He began the night by crooning the High Violet torch song “Runaway,” and then gradually raised the energy in the room with a bevy of highlights from 2007’s Boxer, including “Mistaken For Strangers” and the cruse-control cool of “Brainy.”
By the time The National arrived upon the anthemic “Squalor Victoria,” which inspired a fevered clap-along with drummer Bryan Devendorf’s stadium-sized beat, it was obvious that the night had just been kicked up a notch. From there the band rode out a series of rousing peaks, including Berninger’s knockout new-father ode “Afraid Of Everyone” and the unexpected Sad Songs standout “Available.” By the time he arrived at the in-concert favorite “Mr. November,” Berninger was on his knees, no doubt high on his emptied champagne bottle as well as the realization that The National is currently operating at the absolute height of its powers.