Ironically, the least international edition of this year’s World Music Festival at the Hollywood Bowl featured a band called “The National.” Normally one U.S.-based act is paired with several stellar acts from abroad, the lineup proving just the right mix of inspired and hip. On this beautiful mid-September evening in Los Angeles, the three performances all featured artists born and currently living in the U.S.A. One of the truly exceptional indie rock bands, current New York City residents The National led the bill, supported by Neko Case and newcomer Sharon Van Etten. The National have quietly rose through the ranks after ten years of solid work to be one of the seldom few indie bands that have built success without ravenous hype.
Fellow New York City native opened the evening with a short, subdued and sweet set. She ended with a new song “All I Can” and “Love More.” She was just the right, charming touch to get the evening started on the right foot. Neko Case came next. Known as much for her collaborations (The New Pornographers, The Dodos, Jakob Dylan) as she is for her solo work, Case has an impressive repertoire of material to draw from. Unfortunately though, for all that her strong and steady voice has to offer, there’s just not quite a moment that jumps up and grabs you. “That Teenage Feeling,” “Maybe Sparrow” and “Hold On, Hold On” all were solid numbers entrenched in the rich history of Americana her music resides in, but none of them really delivered the enrapturing vocal delivery you would hope for. On the plus side, Case is an effortless comic wit on stage, stating, “It’s a potpourri of your life. Smell’s good!” (regarding her band mates) and at one point introducing a song claiming, “This next song is about being your garden variety whore.” Americana producer extraordinaire (most famous for his work on the films Crazy Heart and O Brother Where Art Thou?) T-Bone Burnett joined Case on electric guitar for the latter half of her set.
The National faired better. Now a solid ten years and more into their career The National have worked hard to refine their craft and musical competency. Their 2010 album High Violet was their most stellar in an already stellar career. Rounded out by two sets of brothers (Aaron and Bryce Dessner & Bryan and Scott Devendorf) along with stoic lead singer Matt Berninger, the band take meditative rock and evolve into something revelatory. Opening with High Violet tracks “Runaway” and “Anyone’s Ghost,” the group started slowly. From there, “Bloodbuzz Ohio” picked up the pace, the song’s distant and methodical crescendo swirling around Berninger’s ultra-calm baritone. The group made expert use of two impressive guests on this evening, the Calder Quartet string section and none other than St. Vincent’s Annie Clark. The Calder Quartet had poignancy to songs like “Squalor Victoria” and “England.” St. Vincent on the other hand was a delicate and soothing counterpoint to Berninger’s focused vocal timbre. She appeared to back the band up and occasionally do supplemental vocals on “Afraid of Everyone,” “Sorrow,” “Thirsty” and the evening’s penultimate song, “Terrible Love.”
The National opted to eschew a formal encore after Boxer‘s “Fake Empire,” citing that there was only 19 minutes left for them to play. They went straight into their encores from there, wrapping up with “Think You Can Wait,” “Mr. November,” “Terrible Love” and “About Today.” On “Terrible Love” Berninger ran as far out into the crowd as his microphone cable would allow, making it about twenty rows back an standing on a chair while belting the song’s remaining lines. The final song “About Today” was introduced as being an inclusion on the soundtrack to the recent film Warrior.
Berninger might lack the vocal range to pull of the more rocking shrieks that come in their more uptempo songs and their mood does land decidedly in the same general space on each song, but this uplifting variety of American-styled rock reached the crowd. There was a palpable energy in the air that took what could be considered middle-of-the-road and showed the music to be the cathartic success that it is.