September 19, 2005. Less than a week ago, I had gone to my first concert at the Beachland Ballroom, a spectacular performance by Sufjan Stevens and his band. Before then, I hadn't been much of a concertgoer, but now I was eager for more. A friend, who went to a lot of concerts and who I had run into at the Sufjan show, asked if I wanted to tag along with her and some other people to see Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at the Beachland. CYHSY were the buzz band of the moment, thanks in large part to a glowing review from Pitchfork for their debut album. I decided that sure, it sounded fun, and I went. At that night's show, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah were opening for another band, The National (before the concert, I didn't know much, if anything, about either band).
Interesting sidenote about the malleability, and fallibility, of human memory: when searching Google to find the date of the concert, I came across a forum post where someone said, in reference to their "biggest Beachland moment," "I went to see Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the opener was The National on what would be their big come up year for Alligator, in 2006. I don't know if they would agree, but it seemed to me they blew up after that. That night, I think they were better than CHYSY." This is actually the second time that I've come across a reference on the Internet to a past concert that I attended where the person misidentifies which band opened for which (in this case, the year is also off by one, but that's not a big deal). It's really fascinating to me how humans have such a powerful ability to remember things, yet at the same time, can so often hold memories about events in their lives that are at least partly contradictory to the objective history of those events. Okay, so that's my neurobiologist side coming through. Back to the main point.
That night, the ballroom was pretty packed for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. After they finished, some people began to filter out of the room. The size of the crowd continued to diminish during The National's headlining set. Given the band's career trajectory, I think it's almost certainly true that some of the people who left early are now fans of The National. I wonder if any of those people remember what they did, and now regret it? To be fair, I also didn't appreciate the performance to nearly the same level I would now, but I did at least stay through, and enjoy, the headlining set.
The National have come a long way since then. Last Saturday I saw them perform at the LC Pavilion in Columbus, and the outdoor venue, with a capacity of about 5000, was pretty close to full. It was actually something of a last minute decision for me to attend the show. Cara didn't want to go to Columbus that night because she was planning to do a bike race the next morning, so I'd be making the drive, both ways, by myself. I decided I didn't want to miss the concert. It was a good decision.
The event, dubbed the "Next at Wex Fest," featured three bands. Openers Mount Moriah played a nice set of twangy alt-country. I enjoyed it, but didn't find it particularly memorable. The next band, Local Natives, was another one which I'd seen previously at the Beachland.
They played a really good hour long set with a nice mix of songs from their two albums. The band's sound is highlighted by strong vocal harmonies and at times exotic-sounding percussion. I expect they'll continue to grow in popularity.
The outdoor setting worked well for this concert. At about the time Local Natives were concluding their set, the sky was gorgeous, which the band remarked on.
Darkness began to fall as the excited crowd waited for The National to arrive on stage. That crowd would not go disappointed. From the start of "I Should Live In Salt," it was clear the band would be providing a thrilling experience both aurally and visually. There were several cameras set up on stage, and live footage of the band was mixed with an interesting selection of other images and projected on a giant screen behind the stage. The colorful display, with the band members in stark contrast in front of it, made for quite a sight.
But of course, the main draw at a concert should be the music, not the light show. In that regard, The National delivered and then some. They played a set heavy on songs from their two most recent albums, also throwing in a few songs each from their highly acclaimed earlier releases Alligator and Boxer. This is a band whose members have clearly honed their craft to reach a great level of musicianship. Matt Berninger's signature baritone vocals and the rest of the band's accompanying music sounded just about as great as you could hope for a band to sound. In addition to the five normal band members, I have to give special credit to the trumpet player and trombone player the band brought along on tour. The powerfully brassy notes emanating from these two added so much to the band's live sound. On some of the songs, the brass created something of a reinterpretation of the original (The National do include some horn sounds on a few album tracks; by contrast, the haunting strings which appear on some of their songs were absent at this concert), and often the live version sounded even better than the album version. On "The Geese of Beverly Road," the trumpet took the opening notes which are played by a clarinet on the album. This song, from Alligator, was simply stunning, definitely one of the highlights for me - the guitar sound created such great atmosphere, and Berninger's vocals were really powerful. Actually, if I could change anything about the concert, I'd ask for more songs from Alligator, an album I've recently realized, after many years of listening to it, is in fact one of my all time favorites. But I guess getting three songs from an eight-year-old album isn't bad.
Another highlight was main set closer "Fake Empire," perhaps The National's most popular song and for good reason. I just love the piano intro and the trumpet part that comes in near the end, and it all sounded so great live.
The encore started with "Humiliation," a track from the band's latest album, Trouble Will Find Me. The band tacked on an intense outro that's absent from the album version, with Berninger screaming the vocals. (He screams more often live than on album - another example would be on "Squalor Victoria." It's a treat to witness.) When the opening notes of Alligator's closing song "Mr. November" started up next, the crowd went wild. I had a feeling this song would be something special - I remembered the last time I had seen the band, at the Beachland in '07, and how Berninger had climbed up onto one of the giant speakers next to the Beachland stage, so I wondered what he'd do this time around. What happened easily surpassed any expectations I might have had!
The LC Pavilion's audience section is mostly a sloped lawn; in between the lawn and the stage is a fairly sizable pit section. I was standing at the very back of the pit (I have to say that going to concerts is the main time that I really appreciate being tall). I could see, after Berninger began singing "Mr. November," that he climbed down from the stage into the the audience. Still belting out the vocals, he made his way through the crowd, his long microphone cord trailing behind him and being held up by audience members. Soon, I realized that he was just feet away from me! After that, he changed directions, went toward the side of the pit, and climbed into a beer stand, still singing.
Matt Berninger's journey through the crowd during "Mr. November."
I was definitely laughing at this point. It was a giddy, exhilarated sort of laugh. "Mr. November" had to be the biggest highlight of the evening, but it wasn't the last song. The band followed it with "Terrible Love," which ended at 11:00, which is apparently the venue's curfew because Berninger announced that they had to stop, and said something about the people in condos nearby. This was greeted with a chorus of boos. Thankfully, Berninger, after consulting with the rest of the band, said they could play one more song, and it didn't count because it was quiet. The band gathered at the front of the stage and performed "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," with no plugged-in instruments (acoustic guitars and trumpet and trombone were played, and voices were sung, into the mics). It was a perfect finale.
This really ended up being one of the best concerts I've seen in a long time. It was well worth the trip to Columbus, and it's hard to believe in retrospect that I was uncertain about going. I realized that live music can really be something special, so if there's a concert you want to see, just go for it! If you don't, you're throwing away the chance for a wonderful experience and memory.
Even if, over the years, that memory may diverge somewhat from what actually occurred.