Intelligent, thoughtful cats will find the walk from the Fulton Street subway to South Street Seaport an alternately thrilling and grim experience. From the beaux-arts facades progressively melanized by years of soot and pollution, to the hollow blast cavity that is now One World Trade Center, the feeling here is one of latent dread and decline, as if there was some great global reckoning years ago but somehow we’re just waking up now to see it. If you’re the type predisposed to serious thought, this can be a thoroughly provocative little stroll. My personality inclines toward the frivolous and shallow, so apocalypse is really the last thing on my mind. Honestly, all I want right now is a damn cigarette and maybe a falafel.
I’m about two blocks from South Street Seaport on August 17, where the members of the National are now T-minus two minutes and counting from moseying up to the small rostra that’s docked dead center of Pier 17. For those who’ve never been, South Street Seaport is pretty much the closest Manhattan gets to those obsessively authentic “living history villages,” only here history is limned by Victoria’s Secret and the Gap. It’s tacky, but it can be terrific fun if approached ironically. The stage is about twenty or so feet from the East River [insert obligatory mafia joke here] and directly adjacent to the Peking, a retired merchant vessel built circa 1911 that from this side of the stage dominates the background. There is a dark, tantric elegance to the National’s music that for obvious reasons just doesn’t feel right next to large antiquated sea craft. The Decemberists, I reckon, would be a fabulous fit for this venue.
After making my way past the retired mob buttonmen who hold down the gates here, the show starts right on cue with “Start a War” off Boxer, an album that I believe diligent assistants are still trying to wipe the encysted critical jism from. Boxer (released in May via Beggars Banquet) is an extraordinary album, no doubt, an urban nocturne of love and fear so grimly intimate it almost seems obscene to hear it live. A lot of this comes from singer Matt Berninger’s cavernous baritone, which manages the small miracle of being warm and expressive while also sounding utterly narcotized, a neat trick that translates well on stage for certain songs (see the deliberate and intense “Racing Like a Pro”) and falls utterly flat for others (“Apartment Story”).
Berninger is a handsome and gentle-looking galoot, but tonight he doesn’t really own the stage like he probably should. You get the sense that he’d much rather withdraw into the dark chambers of these songs than actually be performing them. This can be thrilling at times (Berninger’s arrested howl as he incants “I’m so sorry for everything” on “Baby We’ll Be Fine” just nails that song’s quiet desperation). But the real juice has nothing to do with “performance” really; it’s in watching a man consciously try to shut us out of his imagination while subconsciously opening the gates for the barbarians.
The big surprise tonight is the wiry, atomically thin madman-cum-Todd Field look-alike on viola and keyboards, the Australian avant-garde composer and National pseudo-member Padma Newsome. Newsome is just a gas to watch. He’s like that guy who wasn’t invited to the party yet somehow ends up becoming its life and soul. When the gorgeously performed “Fake Empire” climaxes, it’s Newsome who provides the blood and thunder, viola aflame and launching the audience into the bliss it came for and deserves. The guy may look like a mutant lhasa apso that was raised by grad students, but for most of the National’s hour-and-a-half set, he is the most absorbing performer on stage, period.
“Mr. November” closes out the performance, a choice that everyone down to small children and beer vendors seem pleased shitless with, and it inevitably segues into one of the lamest rituals left in popular music — the fucking encore. The encore is about as obsolete and antithetical to modernity as those Malaysian fertility rites where young boys have to cleave their foreskin with the spine of a salmon and then eat it. Just once I’d like to go to a rock show and not sit through the enforced sham of a crowd pretending to beg for more when they already know they’re getting it. Really, it’s just silly, when you think about it.
There was some concern over the possibility of a rainout earlier in the day, but fortunately everything seemed to clear up just in time for the National’s set. The National is playing at a level right now most bands only dream about, and even a mediocre show can’t dull the thrill of seeing these songs unfurl live and right before your eyes. For a free concert in downtown Manhattan, I dare you to do better.