South Side Ballroom (Dallas, TX)
– Words by Austin Reed / Photos by James Villa –
I will be the first to admit that, when it comes to music, I’m detrimentally hypercritical. Call it what you want, but I call it a curse that, should I not possess it, would make me an exponentially happier and more delightful human being. But all too often, I’ll listen to something and identify numerous elements that could either be added or subtracted to make the material, in my ridiculous and chronically mistaken opinion, better. When I was 14, after witnessing The Rolling Stones perform a nearly perfect, wildly entertaining three-hour set at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, I could only obsess over the fact that they didn’t perform, “Ventilator Blues.” And earlier this year, when Holy Ghost! released their second full-length LP, Dynamics, I chose not to focus on the holistic strength of the album, opting instead to exploit their failure to incorporate, “It Gets Dark” into the 11-song repertoire, a single released six months prior that is arguably the most club-ready pop tune Holy Ghost! has ever recorded.
I say all of that to say this: Even though this type of thing happens way too frequently, there are precious few scenarios when it doesn’t. And on Saturday night at Southside Music Hall, it didn’t happen. The National delivered a perfect performance. That’s it. Nothing could have made it any better.
When discussing The National, it’s impossible not to draw some line in the sand separating them from the bands by which they were inspired, mainly because unlike their predecessors, for as melancholy as their music can sound, none of the members really appear to be melancholy people. And the confusion isn’t unfounded; we’re talking about a band that cites Pavement as a major source of inspiration but performs music that fits much more comfortably into the Sisters of Mercy catalog.
Which is totally fine. In fact, it’s the nuances within The National’s sound—most notably, the top-tier musical intricacy and the perfectly complementary, uniquely emotive songwriting style—that identify the origin of their craft, not some surface-level evaluation. And that’s the trick with The National: There’s a cosmic difference between hearing their music and truly listening to it.
I realize that’s kind of an intimidating tag to slap on The National’s music. But for as tough a pill as it might be to swallow, the learning curve has never been very steep. For reference, please see 2010’s stylistically unmatched full-length High Violet. With certain grace, High Violet provides a bird’s-eye view of the landscape within which The National consistently operates. Criticism was almost-unanimously positive, claiming that front man Matt Berninger’s signature baritone effortlessly married unbridled sadness and loss with a humanity that made it understandably real and digestible.
2013’s Trouble Will Find Me saw the momentum of High Violet parlay into an LP that sustained the emotional maturity of the previous album without duplicating the details. It is arguably one of the year’s finest full-length albums, and Saturday night’s performance featured many of its highest points.
Promptly at 9:45 p.m. Berninger and gang took stage to the sellout crowd of National loyalists. Kicking off the set with Trouble opener, “I Should Live In Salt,” Berninger crooned with virtuosic articulation, allowing his vocals to steel-drive the entire performance. This was most noticeable during their performance of, “This Is The Last Time,” Trouble’s strongest track. Heavy and commanding, Berninger never relented, insisting on a masterfully curated set that was equal parts visceral and thoughtful.
During the four-song encore, The National performed High Violet closer, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” but not before beginning the song but abruptly stopping because of a timing miscommunication. After jokingly blaming an alleged hole in his pants for the mishap, Berninger then restarted the song and performed it to perfection. Despite the palpable awkwardness, it was far-and-away the most beautiful moment of the entire evening, because it represented the most easily recognizable observation The National has ever made: the inescapability of human error but the necessity to laugh, shrug and learn. It was a poignant, real and emotional way to end an already flawless set.