Before Friday night, the last time I saw The National live was back in 2008 at Chicago’s Lollapalooza. The day before I saw them during the three-day festival, I’d endured a violent set by Rage Against the Machine—one of the headliners along with Radiohead, Kanye West and Nine Inch Nails.
I left the Rage set missing a shoe and slightly trampled, shortly after which my shoeless foot swelled in frightening and ungodly ways. So, by the time I saw The National the following day, I had no choice but to sit myself down in Grant Park’s open field, unable to stand and in too much pain to appreciate the tortured belts of front man Matt Berninger as well as the band’s upliftingly melancholic musicianship.
Now, here I was more than 10 years later, in Los Angeles, literally crutching myself, new broken foot and all, what must’ve been seven blocks to the Hollywood Palladium, Sunset Boulevard’s historic Art-Deco-style dance hall. Somehow, it hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to park any closer than that on the first Friday evening of fall in Hollywood.
By the time I arrived—my first time at the celebrated marquee—and hobbled my way through security, I was 15 minutes late.
Because I was injured, security insisted on escorting me to the seating area in the main performance room. As this happened, as I turned the corner I was granted an exceedingly rare Oh Shit moment in my life: The striking sight of a ghostly beautiful woman cut before a tableau of kaleidoscopic cotton candy-colored smoke and fractal beams of stroboscopic lights in the vintage showroom. The effigy was accompanied and supplemented by a heart-wrenchingly beautiful voice. It belonged to indie singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers. She was singing “Motion Sickness” from her 2017 album Strangers in the Alps.
When I recovered, the security attendant escorted me the rest of the way to one of the small side seating sections where I sat out the rest of Bridgers’ ephemeral set.
Bridgers is a great pick to set the stage for The National in terms of tone and style, but breaking up the interim space with Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” sort of killed the intended effect.
With about five minutes before set start time, I made a decision. I wasn’t going to be caught sitting down for two National shows in a row, 10 years apart. I picked myself up and crutched myself among the throngs in the main standing section. Everyone seemed cool about me cutting in on my crutches and I thought to myself, a National crowd is my kind of crowd.
When the Cincinnati band finally made their way to the stage, they did so to Light Years, a song that just enjoyed its debut in April at The National’s first Homecoming Festival in their home city.
“I will always be light years, light years away from you…I thought I saw your mother last weekend in the park. It could’ve been anybody—it was after dark,” sang Beringer in his sad, rich baritone. Dressed in a patterned short-sleeved shirt, with his rimmed glasses and scraggly blond beard, he looked more than a little like the cool, divorced high school teacher caught at a bar after getting off work. The rest of the bandmates, Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, Scott Devendorf and Bryan Devendorf, carried the vibe of students.
A Mexican guy next me who was self-conscious about his English but always makes sure to see these white mid-westerners whenever they’re in LA, ever since he first heard “Blood Buzz Ohio” from 2010’s High Violet (which they would play later), told me he had needed to take an approximate eight-month break from the band after breaking up with his girlfriend. Now, he was planning on seeing them again in Santa Barbara before the weekend was out.
The next few songs came from 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, which feels less polished than most of their earlier work, with all its spontaneous-sounding guitar squiggles and Radiohead-like static crunch. The songs tended to feel even more devastating with the way they changed up and got more chaotic in their orchestral compositions. With the Palladium’s acoustics, the heavy drum loops and guitar riffs found a home easier than the high-piercing ethereal sounds from the 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me, most noticeably the song: “I Should Live In Salt”.
One of the more interesting songs on Sleep Well Beast is “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, which seems to me to bear the weight of political anxiety rather than relationship woes like so many others. That makes sense. The group is known to be somewhat political. “Fake Empire”, from the 2007 album Boxer, possibly my favorite National song, was played just before President Obama took the stage for his victory speech. As far as National songs go, it’s a bit more sanguine or jaunty-feeling than the aforementioned System.
On the subject of politics, Berninger brought up the 2004 Democratic nominee for president, John Kerry, more than once. Kerry, particularly his defeat, along with the TV show Full House and its star John Stamos, were recurring points throughout the program. Whatever Berninger was saying about any of them, the acoustics again made it nearly impossible to decipher, though a woman next to me who’d come out to see them the previous evening informed me that Berninger was “way more fucked up tonight.”
Towards the end, they closed out with fan favorites from 2010’s High Violet, with “Terrible Love” and their classic closer, “Vanderlyle CryBaby Geeks”:
“Vanderly cry baby cry. It’s all been forgiven…Swans are a’ swimming: I’ll explain everything to the Geeks!” …Everybody was singing.
As I made my way back out onto Sunset Boulevard after an evening of satisfying emotional catharsis, I couldn’t help but think of the long time gap since I last saw them and everything I’ve been through since then. I also thought about how much the band has grown in popularity. It made sense to call them Indie back then.
Not anymore. I pulled up the 2008 Lollapalooza lineup poster. In its low res format, I couldn’t even find the band name in the small font that got succeedingly smaller as it distanced itself from the headliners. How much things can change, I thought, as I crutched the seven blocks back to my car.