Live Review: The National w/ Youth Lagoon @ Barclays Center, 6/5/2013

by on June 13, 2013

Posted in: Concert, Rock, Show Review

The National have been around since 1999, and though I’m not going to try to claim I liked them back when I was 5 years old, they’ve been sitting on the backburner of my music interests for a while.  Last week, The National returned to their Brooklyn stomping grounds for a concert at the recently completed Barclays Center.  Situated in Prospect Heights, the large multipurpose indoor arena is just a stone’s throw away from Penn Station thanks to the Atlantic Avenue subway nexus located right outside the venue doors.  Most of the time I try to stick to smaller, general admission venues with lower ticket prices, but the allure of Youth Lagoon and The National touring on the same ticket was too hard to pass up.

Having recently released Wondrous Bughouse, Youth Lagoon’s opening set was focused mostly on their newer songs.  23 year-old Trevor Powers was backed by more of a band than I expected, blasting loud reverberations into a sparsely seated Barclays Center. Most of the crowd had yet to file in, most of them still busy outside buying overpriced beer and band merch.  Even in recordings, Powers’ shy, innocent vocals are often shrouded by synthesizers and sound effects, so even to Youth Lagoon attuned ears, it was almost impossible to decipher Powers’ croons through the Barclays Center’s booming sound system.  Despite the drawbacks of the large setting, Youth Lagoon’s performance didn’t fail to transform the venue into another planet.  The ethereal, dreamlike sounds of Wondrous Bughouse seemed to perplex and enrapture the crowd at the same time.  The silhouette of Trevor Powers crouched over his piano in front of the stalagmite light sculpture backdrop looked like an illustration out of The Little Prince.  The highlight of the performance was undoubtedly when Powers’ sang “Cannons” from Youth Lagoon’s debut album, Year of Hibernation.  In comparison with some of the earlier songs, Powers voice was not completely drowned out by the band, and he could be heard singing even with the intensifying build of instrumentation.  His voice came over the microphone sounding like a more confident reincarnate of Daniel Johnston, clear, earnest, and haunting.

Before The National came out, the on-stage video screen got the audience cheering with grainy black and white footage of the band and crew backstage.  It had a similar feel to the cinematography in “Shut Up and Play the Hits”, the 2012 documentary of LCD Soundsystem’s final concert in Madison Square Garden.  The footage may have had a similar aesthetic, but in The National’s case, they are nowhere near the end of the road.  Their Barclays Center concert marked the beginning of their “Trouble Will Find Me” tour, with stops across the country and around the world throughout this summer and fall.

They opened the set with a pounding rendition of new album favorite, “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, and my fears of poor sound quality were immediately assuaged. The National wasted no time in playing fan favorite, “Bloodbuzz Ohio” next, accompanied by blood red splattered visuals over the band on the video screen.  Overall the visual elements of the concert’s video accompaniment were an interesting and entertaining element of the performance but lacked a clear theme throughout the show.

At 42 years old, lead singer Matt Berninger rocked out as if he were still in his twenties, his energy unflagging as he flung his body around the stage during the 2-hour set peppered with songs both old and new.  With such a consistently impressive discography, there was not a dull moment in the set, and I found it hard to predict which songs they might save for an encore (see set list below).  Not long into the show, Berninger’s vocals grew more hoarse, harkening back to The National’s earlier days of unrestrained, pure rock.  The strain on his voice did not deter Berninger, in fact, it seemed to make him want to scream even louder and dance even harder.  In “Conversation 16” the horn section built to a culminating moment of Berninger repeating, “I’m evil, I’m evil” with ten times more energy than he does on High Violet.

The volume was brought down a notch in a brief moment of respite for both the band and the crowd when Berninger dedicated the mellow “I Need My Girl” to his wife, saying that it wasn’t “full of clever metaphors” or anything like that. This honest quality of The National’s music has won them respect
from critics and fans over the years, and it’s clear they aren’t just cranking out albums, they really love what they do.  The mellow vibe continued with a little bit of surprise excitement when Annie Clark of St. Vincent came out on stage to sing with Berninger during “This is the Last Time”.

As the first notes of “Fake Empire” were struck on the piano, a simultaneous exhalation of joy passed over the crowd.  Soon the stadium was on its feet, the trombones surging as the crowd sung along with every word of Berninger’s baritone voice.  The encore followed with a surprising mix of songs, starting with the new, “I Should Live In Salt” and “Humiliation”, followed by old favorite, “Mr. November”, in which Berninger came out and stood with the huge audience on the concert floor.  They ended with an extended and energetic rendition of “Terrible Love”, leaving the audience fully danced clean.  As roar of applause finally died down, and the audience began to exit, Berninger said, “We’re out of time, but we’d like to do one last thing for you tonight”, launching into a calming acoustic version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” accompanied by Youth Lagoon.  For five minutes we were all frozen in our tracks, singing along with The National like they were playing in our living rooms instead of the future stadium of the Brooklyn Nets.

At the beginning of their set, lead singer Berninger joked to the packed audience, “We have been a band for 14 years. We’ve played probably 35 different venues in New York over the years. Tonight we just wanted to go back to our roots, where it all began, right here at the Barclays Center.” Before this performance, The National played several intimate shows at local venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn as well as a six-hour live performance of their song “Sorrow” on repeat at MoMa PS1.  Over the years The National’s popularity has been steadily growing, but it’s hard to say that they’ve ever lost their touch or “sold out”, unless you’re talking about concert tickets. Their concert at the Barclays Center was a culminating marker of how far they’ve come with 6 albums in the past 14 years.  And despite their success, it’s clear they haven’t left their roots behind.

 Check out the setlist below, as well as some photographs courtesy of Brooklyn Vegan(All images copyright BrooklynVegan.com, June 5, 2013.)

The National @ Barclays Center, 6/5/2013

Don’t Swallow the Cap
; Bloodbuzz Ohio
; Mistaken for Strangers
; Sea of Love
; Sorrow
; Demons
; Heavenfaced
; Afraid of Everyone
; Conversation 16
; Squalor Victoria
; I Need My Girl
; This is the Last Time (with Annie Clark of St. Vincent)
; Abel
; Apartment Story
; Pink Rabbits
; England
; Graceless
; About Today
; Fake Empire;

Encore:

I Should Live In Salt; Humiliation; Mr. November; Terrible Love; Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks (acoustic)

The crowd:

youth-lagoon-23

Youth Lagoon:

youth-lagoon-09

The National:

national-05

The National with Annie Clark of St. Vincent:

national-30