Monday, December 12th, 2011
The National, Neko Case, and Wye Oak at The Air Canada Centre in Toronto
Frank YangI’m not really sure how to frame this show. Arena-sized, indie rock summit featuring acts from three of the finest independent labels going? Victory lap capping an incredible 18-month run for one of the best bands, anywhere? Early Christmas gift? Yeah, I may go with that last one. And a surprise gift at that, because even though there’s little arguing about the strength of a bill featuring The National, Neko Case and Wye Oak, placing it in an arena – even one configured to one-third of its full size for a more intimate theatre setting – would give most people pause. After all, both The National and Case had just recently reached the echelon of acts who could play the rarified setting of Massey Hall and prove they belonged; even if they could draw more people, would the presumed trade-off in atmosphere and sound quality be worth it?
Of all of them, it was Baltimore duo Wye Oak who’d had the most experience punching above their weight class as far as venues were concerned. This would be their fourth Toronto show in the calendar year and the third as support for a much bigger act – that’d have been The Decemberists back in February and then Explosions In The Sky in October, both at the Sound Academy and both proving the band had no fear in playing to large audiences that were not necessarily their own. That wasn’t actually the case this time around, as the early set time meant that while the crowd was decidedly sparse, those who were there had made the effort to be there in time to see them play. And, as they’d done each time out, they wholly impressed with their confidence, dynamics, and songcraft – I’ve only listened to Civilian a moderate amount this year, but seeing them live three times this year have really made me appreciate how talented they are.
I’d actually forgotten that Neko’s last headlining show in Summer 2009 was at Massey Hall; I’d caught her decidedly more cozy show a few months earlier at Trinity-St. Paul’s and that evening of magic was enough to keep me going for some time. Quite some time, as it’d turn out, since Neko hadn’t released anything since 2009’s Middle Cyclone, keeping busy with The New Pornographers’ touring schedule and this set of shows being at the invitation of The National rather than having anything new to promote. And while she didn’t exactly dress up for the occasion – jeans and a hoodie, thanks – she still brought her full band (with Calexico’s inimitable John Covertino on drums) and her A-game. Despite an erratic mix that often put Paul Rigby’s guitar ahead of Neko’s vocals, she was still able to make use of the expansive space to soar and remind those who needed reminding of just how powerful a performer she was. Amidst the set laden with old favourites, Case previewed a couple of new songs which will presumably be going onto a album – both continuing on in the country-pop hybrid vein in which she’s found her stride – as well as a gorgeous cover of The Awkward Stage’s “We Dreamt Of Houses” that I genuinely hope makes it onto the record. And, of course, there was plenty of joking around with longtime foil Kelly Hogan, frequently at Rigby’s expense. It doesn’t seem quite accurate to be welcoming Neko back when she hasn’t really been away and she hasn’t got a new record yet, but still. Welcome back.
When The National played two nights at Massey Hall last June, it felt like a pinnacle of achievement for the Cincinnati by way of Brooklyn five-piece; a room to match the stately sophistication of their sound and presumably their new home in Toronto for years to come. But those shows came at the very start of the cycle for High Violet and even long-time fans such as myself couldn’t predict how much bigger the band would get over the next year and a half. And while it’s true that the Air Canada Centre wasn’t nearly sold out, even in the theatre setup, there were still considerably more people in attendance than Massey could have contained so the upgrade in venue wasn’t so much hubris as necessity.
For anyone who was at those Massey shows, it may be hard to imagine a better National performance than those. They may have just scored a #3 album but as one of the first performances in support of High Violet, they still carried an enormous weight of expectation on their shoulders. But rather than buckling under the pressure, they used it as fuel and turned in the best show of theirs I’d seen to date (and I had seen them lots). As it turned out, the key phrase there was “to date”.
Their set began not onstage but backstage, as handheld camera footage from the green room was projected onto the backdrop and showed the band and entourage clowning and lounging around for a few minutes – hardly the gloomy crew that some might infer from their music. And after a few minutes of that, they rallied the troops and began navigating the labyrinths of the ACC, eventually striding off the screen and onto the stage. I’m sure other bands have done similar entrances before, but to do something so overtly anti-mystique to open their biggest show in the city seemed a bold move.
As they did that first night at Massey Hall they opened with a slow burn in “Runaway”, perhaps seeking to establish a more intimate vibe in the arena which, while well-filled in the stands, had room to spare on the floor. The set followed a similar trajectory through their catalog as last year’s show, favouring the last three albums but reaching right back to their self-titled debut for “Son”, sonically renovated just enough to fit well alongside its more recent brethren. And really, the broad strokes of what constitutes The National live experience haven’t changed too much since those first shows at The Horseshoe; there’s obviously better stage production, lighting, and Matt Berninger isn’t likely to give up his suits for Cincinnati Bengals t-shirts anytime soon. But ultimately it’s about Berninger alternately meditating at the mic or roaming the stage while the Dessner twins flank him interweaving guitar parts and the Devendorf rhythm section hangs back and keeps things together. Even Berninger’s random bursts of violence – typically against mic stands – have always had a certain zen serene-ness at their core.
So what made this show so exceptional? Despite the scale of the room, it still felt surprisingly personal thanks to the exceptional sound – yes, the ACC sounded loud and clear and great, believe it – and a band that were clearly feeling loose, confident and chatty, not to mention honed to razor-sharpness from near-constant touring through shows and festivals even bigger than this over the past 18 months or so. Augmented as is now the norm by a couple of horn players, they turned out more powerful and dynamic versions of “Squalor Victoria”, “Slow Show” and “Conversation 16” (dedicated to the cannibals of Cincinnati and not zombies, as I’d always assumed) than I’ve ever heard before deciding the space in the general admission needed to be addressed. After an energized “Abel”, Berninger strode into the stands at house left and invited everyone down into the floors; the other sections of the ACC needed no such personal invitation and as the band tore into “Sorrow”, every aisle was overflowing with fans upgrading their seats. Eventually the floor filled up and Berninger was forced to ask those left behind to return their seats to keep the aisles clear (in direct contradiction to his earlier, “Fuck safety! Health is lame!” pronouncements). But the task of getting the previously over-respectful crowd worked up and extra-energized was done.
Which made it the perfect time to invite out hometown hero Owen Pallett to guest on one of two new songs premiered earlier in the day for CBC Radio, “I Need My Girl”, and then assist on perhaps the most epic version of “England” heard in this city to date. No word of lie, save for the club-level intensity of those first Horseshoe shows, this was the best I’d ever seen them. So why did I skip out on the encore, leaving as set closer “Fake Empire” echoed off the arena walls? Tell you tomorrow. But about today, all I can say that as The National head back to New York for a series of shows that close the books on High Violet, they do so as not only one of the best bands going, but still seemingly with unlimited potential… but if, on their next return to town, they’re again at the ACC rather than two nights at Massey, don’t let the venue put you off. Just be sure it’s the theatre and not the full arena – everything has its limits.
NOW, The Toronto Star, Examiner.com, The Globe & Mail, The National Post, The Toronto Sun, and BlogTO also have reviews of the show. The National Post has an interview with Matt Berninger while Scott Devendorf takes The Grid through the anatomy of their set list. And to hear those new songs the band unveiled on CBC that morning, head over to Q for streams.
Photos: The National, Neko Case, Wye Oak @ The Air Canada Centre – December 8, 2011
MP3: The National – “Twenty Miles To NH (Part 2)”
MP3: The National – “Exile Vilify”
MP3: The National – “Think You Can Wait”
MP3: The National – “Afraid Of Everyone”
MP3: The National – “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
MP3: The National – “So Far Around The Bend”
MP3: The National – “Fake Empire”
MP3: The National – “Son”
MP3: The National – “Beautiful Head”
MP3: Neko Case – “Middle Cyclone”
MP3: Neko Case – “People Got A Lotta Nerve”
MP3: Neko Case – “Hold On, Hold On”
MP3: Neko Case – “Star Witness”
MP3: Neko Case – “If You Knew”
MP3: Wye Oak – “Holy, Holy”
MP3: Wye Oak – “Civilian”
MP3: Wye Oak – “Take It In”
MP3: Wye Oak – “Warning”
Video: The National – “Exile Vilify” (1st Place)
Video: The National – “Exile Vilify” (1.00000000001th Place)
Video: The National – “Think You Can Wait”
Video: The National – “Conversation 16”
Video: The National – “Terrible Love”
Video: The National – “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
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”
Video: Neko Case – “People Got A Lotta Nerve”
Video: Neko Case – “Maybe Sparrow”
Video: Neko Case – “Furnace Room Lullabye”
Video: Wye Oak – “Holy, Holy”
Video: Wye Oak – “Fish”
Video: Wye Oak – “Please Concrete”
The Antlers step into The Guardian‘s studio to describe and demonstrate how they wrote their song, “Parentheses”. They also chat with DIY and NYC Taper has a recording of their show at Webster Hall on Saturday available to download.