Saturday, November 10, 2007

The National

I held tightly to Q as we zigzagged around October puddles, mildewy beggars and hipster teens towards The Showbox entrance. I kept good hold of her, because everyone at The National show was dressed just like us - the days of each boy coming of age in Seattle being issued a goatee are over; now he gets a gray hoodie, indie tee, and Chinese military cap. We managed to arrive early enough to see the last song of the opening act (a regrettable and barely recognizable Beatles medley which must have jostled John in his grave).

Following the show, I flew across the country to, in part, carry my grandfather's ashes from a funeral home to an SUV back seat. I don't say that to be dramatic, I wasn't close with him, rather to set the scene: thirty hungry, hot, sticky Pennsylvanians scooping beans, seven kinds of pasta salad, meet slices, fried things, and condiments onto flimsy paper plates. The demographics were as uniform as they were diverse: my aunt and uncle (three- and two-years my junior) are tiny waifs while half the group is clinically obese. Cops chatted up familiar robbers; proud gold coin holders hugged late stage alcoholics; folks who had been to church six times that week mingled with those who haven't been in decades. I couldn't stick out if I tried - besides, half the men had my nose.

Q and I played a game with the roadies: we tried to guess which hipster was the lead singer (or even in the band). It was too close to call as Q bet on the flannelled, army-capped, bearded man. There were at least six microphones and six guitars on the stage, flanked by three keyboards and a full drum set. The lead singer turned out to be a dead ringer for Sting circa 1990. Whatever their set would hold, I knew we'd cut them a lot of slack based on their adorableness. Q admitted a crush on the lead singer, but really, who doesn't love Sting? Half the band unintentionally looked like Muppets. This was going to be a great show.

My grandfather has been in ill health for years, and in some respects his passing was a blessing. Also, the man was cantankerous, contentious, mean-spirited and outright antagonistic. I'm not being harsh. Less than two weeks ago my father found him with a black eye - apparently another nurse went fist-to-fist with him. A man who could barely lift both arms, having only one leg, missing internal pieces, and on every medication known to man managed to pick a fight a week before his body finally gave up. I'd hate to see the nurse; I bet she's in worse shape.

Bands with only one album face an uphill battle on stage. The National have one 43-minute full length album (Boxer) with many quality songs, though I wasn't sure how their mellow vibe and fathomless vocals would translate to the big stage during a 90 minute set. Sure enough, they vamped the tempo a bit for the slow pieces and extended the solos a few bars. Besides that, the album and show were identical twins raised on opposite coasts. The National pulled off a polished, tight set with a quick encore and enough energy to get the crowd singing along for a good part of the concert. Their catchy hooks helped.

Sonically, they rocked. The lead singer belted out his vocals in spastic stances while he disassembled the microphone stand. Unfortunately, the deepness of the singer's voice made it difficult to understand most of the lyrics. (Even though I know all the words to Fake Empire, I barely recognized a line from the live version.) The violinist had the most energy of the bunch (and the least melodic subtlety), though the drummer and lead guitarist made the best faces. I'm a big fan of music faces. The guitarist wriggled his jowls left and right, the drummer sported Animal expressions to compliment his Muppet-like hair.

My father was sitting on his couch when I came downstairs with my packed luggage. His face was blank. It often is. I could see his shoulders slightly creeping back up with the weight of his father's illness finally lifted. He's been busy with the arrangements. He did an amazing job organizing the family. He hasn't had time to miss his father yet. He didn't want to talk about much other than the money and the family's responsiveness to his leadership - they were uncharacteristically easygoing about the arrangements which met his budget by less than $100. He looked up from a laptop and over the blaring television shyly smiled at me. I miss him, too.

The National has a long way to go before they can claim mastery of the live show. After their warm-up trilogy of songs they picked up the volume and began what was to be an annoying ritual. Each song ended with a short, loud, frantic, all-chord jam. Much like sex, it was surely more rewarding creating the noise than watching. The violinist danced, the guitars jumped a bit, and the lead singer clapped at the drummer and contorted his arms. They repeated this enough times that Q and I decided to skip the final crescendo of the final song; we got the picture. While The National were light on crowd interaction, I can forgive all transgressions. As we settled back into the Subaru, we threw in Boxer because the music, after all, is what drives the us.

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