Monday, May 25th, 2009
So Far Around The Bend
The National and Colin Stetson at the Kool Haus in Toronto
Frank YangIt may well have been a case of cabin fever that spurred The National to schedule a short east coast tour starting off in Toronto last Thursday. Two years removed from the release of Boxer and still a ways away from the follow-up – rumoured to have a working title of Shine and not due out at best until late 2009 and more likely 2010 – it’s not unreasonable to think they needed a break from the studio to stretch out their legs and maybe road-test a few new songs.
And so while the motivation for the show seemed simple enough, it was still significant in that it represented a definite, quantifiable step up in the band’s draw – whereas their last headlining show in October 2007 was at the 1000-capacity Phoenix, this time they were playing the twice-as-large Kool Haus and had easily sold it out. The uncomfortable and sonically dubious Kool Haus is a real wedge venue in this city, with some people steadfastly refusing to go to shows there they’d have patronized elsewhere, but with their absences compensated for by new, more recently acquired fans who unfortunately tend to mostly be of the chattier, drunker and generally irritating variety. That this would happen was an inevitability, but the question of “when” has been answered – with “now”. And while I’m one of those with no fondness for the venue, The National are on that short list of bands who’d I’d see play anywhere in this city – and so it was off to the concrete box on the waterfront with the hope that the band’s magic could compensate for the venue’s distinct lack of.
I’d failed to do any sort of research on opener Colin Stetson and if I had, I might have been a bit more prepared for his set. It consisted of a half-hour of extended saxophone excursions of the avant-garde and decidedly non-melodic variety which I won’t pretend to have understood in any musical sense but did find impressive for the sheer amount of cardiovascular endurance they demanded of Stetson. At least I was able to appreciate his sense of humour, demonstrated between songs as he caught his breath and referred to his abstract compositions as love songs.
Stetson would re-take the stage as part of The National, who were traveling as a nine-piece this time out – the core five, Doveman’s Thomas Bartlett again handling keyboards and a three-piece horn section. For some acts, almost doubling the size of their lineup would be a clear warning sign of out of control sonic ambitions, but The National actually seemed to play things more intimately and create a looser club vibe rather than play up to the size of the room and really, that’s one of their greatest strengths – the ability to craft songs that simultaneously anthemic in scope yet intensely personal. They did take advantage of the larger stage, singer Matt Berninger in particular wandering to and fro throughout the set, but vibe-wise it wasn’t far removed from their earlier visits in smaller rooms.
They did, however, come off a bit rusty in performance, their time away from the road very much in evidence as they sought to find their feet. Musically, they sounded tight but were not able to overcome the Kool Haus’ boomy acoustics and Berninger, perhaps rediscovering the joys of the rider, dropped the mic a couple of times during the more energetic tunes, failed to sing directly into it for the choruses of “Mr. November” making it an unintentional audience participation number and forgot the words to the start of main set closer “Fake Empire”. These were just minor blemishes though, and made things a touch more memorable and entertaining – I’m biased, though. There’s not much The National could do to actually disappoint me.
The closest they came was not taking advantage of being without a particular album to promote and mixing up the set list, but when this means a set comprised of two of my favourite albums of this century – Boxer and Alligator – that’s hardly something to complain about. I would have liked to hear “So Far Around The Bend” from the Dark Was The Night benefit comp, but a minor point. They also showcased three new songs and made it clear that while Boxer was their creative high point so far, they’re still aiming higher. One of the tunes, “Blood Buzz Ohio”, was particularly grand and whereas new, unfamiliar songs usually get polite applause this one got a huge ovation. One listen and it was that good.
As mentioned, the new record is still way off in the distance, but it can’t come too soon for me. And while most selfish fans (myself included) would hope their favourite bands stay small and theirs only, I hope the National gets just big enough to begin booking themselves into Massey Hall… and then staying there.
Chart also has a review of the show.
Photos: The National, Colin Stetson @ The Kool Haus – May 21, 2009
MP3: The National – “So Far Around The Bend”
MP3: The National – “Fake Empire”
MP3: The National – “Son”
MP3: The National – “Beautiful Head”
Video: The National – “So Far Around The Bend” (live)
Video: The National – “Mistaken For Strangers”
Video: The National – “Apartment Story”
Video: The National – “Abel”
Video: The National – “Lit Up”
Video: The National – “Daughters Of The Soho Riots”
Video: The National – “Sugar Wife”
Video: The National – “Son”
MySpace: The National
MySpace: Colin Stetson
The New York Times has a big feature on Grizzly Bear, whose Veckatimest is easily the big new release of the week. The band recently partook in a Black Cab Session and have rolled out a new video. Their June 5 show at the Phoenix is sold out, if you were wondering.
Video: Grizzly Bear – “Two Weeks”
NPR hearts themselves some St. Vincent, streaming her recent show in Washington DC as well conducting an interview. And a note to locals – the August 8 Toronto show announced last week is NOT happening at Lee’s Palace, but will be at the Horseshoe – so as fast as you thought it was going to sell out? It’ll actually be faster.
Scotland’s 1990s have canceled their upcoming North American tour due to “unforeseen circumstances”, including their June 3 date at the Horseshoe.
Peter Murphy, who himself will be releasing a series of four covers as singles, will be at the Opera House on July 11.
But if that reason’s not good enough, you also have the option of seeing a little Man Man action that same night, July 14, at Lee’s Palace. Tickets for that are $16.50. They have a new video from last year’s Rabbit Habits.
So I’ve had some good luck soliciting shopping advice from y’all before, so let’s try this again. I need new headphones. My current Shure SE210s have begun to crap out in exactly the same way as the Shure SE210s they replaced barely two months (via warranty) in that the midrange driver in the left earbud seems to be cacking out. I found these ‘phones to be eminently comfortable and quite good sounding, but don’t really think I’d trust another pair of Shures. I think I definitely want another pair of in-ears, but that means that I can’t test them out before buying and reviews can only go so far. Currently considering some Ultimate Ears Super.fi 4vi (the iPhone compatibility – particularly the pause/play button – is tempting) or the Etymotic ER6i. Also looked at offerings around that price point from Sennheiser, but have never really like their bass-heavy sounds – I want clarity, detail and general flatness. Recommendations?