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Monday, May 25th, 2009

So Far Around The Bend

The National and Colin Stetson at the Kool Haus in Toronto

Photo By Frank YangFrank 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.

The Lemonheads’ new covers record Varshons hits stores on June 23 and the tour to support will wrap up on July 4 in Toronto at Lee’s Palace – tickets for that are $20.

Peter Murphy, who himself will be releasing a series of four covers as singles, will be at the Opera House on July 11.

If you needed another reason to see Neko Case at Massey Hall on July 14, how about the fact that Jason Lytle has been added as support? There’s an interview with Lytle at The Skinny.

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.

MP3: Man Man – “Top Drawer”
Video: Man Man – “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?

By : Frank Yang at 8:15 am
Category: Concert Reviews

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

RSS Feed for this post15 Responses.
  1. G Valentino says:

    I was at The National show also. Sadly, I wind up going to more shows at Kool Haus than I’d like to admit, if only because Toronto has yet to develop a good mid-sized venue. I will admit that I haven’t been to a show at Sound Academy.

    My review of the show (not nearly as good as yours) touched on a lot of the same points, including the chattery crowd. However, I don’t think this is purely a Kool Haus phenomena. Maybe it’s because we prefer to stand near the back, being short people, but almost ever venue we’ve been to has been marred by people who are more interested in chatting to their friends about either (1) how cool it is to be there (2) how much they love the song the band is playing, but not actually listening to the song or (3) nothing to do with the show at all. I don’t know if it’s a Toronto thing (I haven’t noticed it in other cities I’ve been to concerts in), but there is a pretty vocal contingent of people who think the hallmark of a good show is acting like they’re too good to be at the show.

  2. ovenking says:

    I recommend the Etys if you’re looking for clarity and detail. The ER6i has lower impedance and better bass response (hence its popularity with the iPoo crowd), and the ER6 that I have are more flat tonally (not everyone’s cup of tea, I must admit, and something that many people take some time to get used to).

    Sure, you can pay more and get something better (have you seen the Sleek Audio SA6??? I heart…), but for under US$100 the ER6(i) can’t be beat.

    My original pair started developing some intermittent cutting in and out in one ear after 3 years (I can’t count the number of times I had them pulled out of my ear by getting the cable caught in my bag, jacket, doorknob, &c.), and I sent them back to ER expecting to be charged for repairs or a new pair. Lo and behold they shipped me a brand new set free, even though I was out of warranty!

    Nothing’s perfect though. The one small thing I don’t like about the ER6 is the cable management. Wish they had gone with a thicker sheath.

  3. scott says:

    JASON LYTLE! YES! Thanks for that update – I kept hoping he’d be added (but didn’t buy better tickets, sadly, in anticipation) – but at least I’ll be GOING now… thanks for that!

  4. bernita says:

    pretty much had the same reaction to the National show on all points. True about the drunken, chatty (and young, not to seem old myself, but it was all ages) crowd. They are also one of the few bands that could never let me down.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Wow. Where did all that power come from? It being my first time seeing the National live, and mostly familiar with Boxer, I wasn’t prepared for the sonic intensity and sheer ferocity of some of their (older?) material. And Matt Berninger — up until this show, I would have used any of several words to describe him, but “Wild Man” wouldn’t have been among them. Did not see that degree of edge coming, or that mic stand (I hope it didn’t land too close to you, Frank!).

    Visually, it was like watching a besuited, (even more) autistic Gord Downie (albeit possessed by Leonard Cohen), flanked by guitar hobbits Merry and Pippin from Lord of the Rings. But in a good way.

    No “Guest Room” or “Racing Like a Pro”, but those are small complaints — all in all, great band, remarkably good sound (yes, it is possible at the Kool Haus), just a superb show.

    I’m still willing to give Kool Haus a chance based on occasions like these, but the Sound Academy/Docks? Never again.

  6. Bruce says:

    Sorry, that was me (didn’t mean to be anonymous).

  7. giselle says:

    i thought the national were outstanding – they seem to get better each time i’ve seen them … maybe it was the horn section? maybe it was the jetlag? maybe it was the bonus of getting to see them (was on a business trip) … but wow, even the weirdness of the venue didn’t bother me …

  8. Jeremy says:

    Super jealous that you got to see the National. Great review, as always.

  9. jfpva says:

    “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.” > Bay-Bloor will let you test out in-ears, at least they did last summer when I was shopping. They clean ’em after each use.

    The National were lovely, despite the venue. Massey Hall is a great idea. Here’s hoping it becomes reality.

    I saw Colin Stetson opening for and as part of Belle Orchestre a month ago. At the Courthouse, of all places. Significantly better acoustics means the man’s sax workouts really shine. The overtones and percussion you can hear are really amazing when they aren’t lost amongst Kool Haus’ concrete walls and high-fiving frat boys. Ditto for his stage humour.

  10. mike says:

    Maybe it was just my vantage point(front row, left side of the stage) that the crowd seemed to be lacking any consistent enthusiasm(curious how the crowd was at the back). The National’s performance overall didn’t seem like one of their best IMO. Other than Matt and Scott who displayed some energy, they overall didn’t have the oomph they had in past Toronto performances (at The Opera House and Phoenix, relatively more intimate venues). Bryan just wasn’t hitting the drums hard enough for my liking (for example – the louder drum parts during “Fake Empire” which I’d hope would have killed but didn’t). Perhaps, my slight disappointment was due to my more favourable memories of their past shows – my first time seeing them live was at The Opera House a few years ago and it was a stunning show. Good on you if it was your first time seeing them(at Kool Haus last week) and you absolutely adored it.

  11. don says:

    Thanks for the excellent review for the National. They were on Q yesterday and debuted a new song that was posted on youtube:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjskJAKeJdM

  12. PB says:

    JASON LYTLE! YES! Thanks for that update – I kept hoping he’d be added (but didn’t buy better tickets, sadly, in anticipation) – but at least I’ll be GOING now… thanks for that!

  13. Scott says:

    I don’t understand the Grizzly Bear hype. This is the only bad review I’ve found of the new Grizzly Bear but it’s pretty close to how I feel: http://thedumbingofamerica.wordpress.com/2009/05/29/moraging-bloggersgrizzly-bear/
    It’s actually pretty funny because it says they’re more MOR than experimental. Not sure I agree with the shot they take at Stereogum and others, but it’s good reading.

  14. Frank Yang says:

    re: Grizzly Bear – y’know, I’m not real big on them either. Seen em live a few times, respect them and their abilities but their stuff just doesn’t connect with me. But they’re beloved by my readers so I keep tabs on them to the extent that I do. But no more than that.

  15. Adrian says:

    Regarding earbuds, I’ve been pretty happy with my Shure E2c-n’s. Once I found the right covers (they come with 9 sets), they’ve been really comfortable and they sound good, though, obviously, they’re not Sennheiser HD-600s or something on that level. I shove them in my pocked and bag a lot and they haven’t crapped out at all or show many signs of wear. I’ve had them for about 10 months now.