Webster Hall, February 2, 2006, New York, NY – The National are angry.
The band – touring in support of a wonderful Alligator album that hasn’t made them rich as they think it should – are headlining the Plug Music Awards, a made-up ceremony in which the “awards” are handed out during set changes. They play last, surrounded by devil heads on the walls and indie kids on the floor.
They are the same band that will write Boxer and High Violet, be subject of a fawning New York Times Magazine story, and play a high-minded show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. They are the same band that will eventually become successful enough that others accuse them of being boring, a claim that’s both driven by equal parts jealousy and fact. They are the same band that will get paid, find love, have children.
They are a band on the way, but right now, in this moment, they are pissed.
This show, it’s clear almost immediately, means everything to the group of five. They destroy their bodies on stage. They are desperate. Hungry. Vital. Overpowering. At one point, Matt Berninger sings so violently that he shakes the microphone cord out its slot.
A year from now, the lead singer will offer, “I think everything counts a little more than we think,” on Boxer’s “Ada.” Tonight, however, he has a different mind set: Nothing matters, except killing this show, even if it kills them.
Amtrak, October 26, 2010, Somewhere between Providence, RI and New York, NY – I have no idea if The National played “Available” on that February night four years ago. They might have – they didn’t have a huge catalog back then – but it’s not a great song. At this point, it wouldn’t make a two-disc “Best Of… The National” album. For 200 seconds, Berninger finds himself battling an alt-rock wall of noise in an effort to locate the slow, dark, melodic songs that the world associates with his band. He’ll get there – Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers cut “90-Mile Water Wall” provided the roadmap, and he inched closer on Alligator before perfecting the form on Boxer – but “Available” is a messy mix of ideas. I don’t know why they would have played the song.
But if you could compress the hopeless feeling overwhelming the room at Webster Hall – the frustration of knowing you’re good enough to succeed and but knowing that you aren’t – into 25 seconds, it would sound exactly like the stretch from 2:20 through 2:45.
Today, the National are a far superior band. They doused the fire present onstage at Webster and created magic from the smoke and the embers. But I’m allowed to miss the inferno.