Despite Spring’s yawn this past weekend, Chicago could still use some heat. On night two of their weekend residency at Chicago’s UIC Pavilion, Brooklyn’s The National and Canada’s Arcade Fire worked together to trump any thick coat or warm cup of coffee. They hit the spot, too.
Half past seven, The National strolled out to the sounds of Bob Dylan’s great Lebowski moment: “The Man in Me”. Naturally, the thousand or so souls in attendance roared in applause, while several unfortunates in the respective beer or merch lines raced to return to their seats. For some who caught the band either at Coachella or online via webcast, they were hoping the set would be an improvement from the more or less stale desert performance.
Their wishes were granted.
Over a solid five album discography, The National work with a unit of songs that vary slightly in intensity. For the most part, they build and climb higher as seconds pass, usually leading to some sort of soothing climax that feels balmy and/or appreciated. The same could be said for the band’s stage presence. Last night, The National held and controlled their passion for each song, only to let loose once each refrain or bridge passed. This passion was felt in a strummy yet bass fueled Bloodbuzz Ohio where frontman Matt Berninger appeared like a crash test dummy given new life: dramatic flailing, lanky dancing, and a head that refused to acknowledge gravity. On Afraid of Everyone, the band showed the crowd not only the sheer talent of guitarist Aaron Dessner, but how they can take a relatively slow song and bring it up to speed, elevating it to new heights. It didn’t hurt that Arcade Fire’s Richard Perry joined them on-stage, either.
Photo by Lauren Guagno
To close out the set, The National stirred up their fans with an unexpected appearance of Win Butler on “Start a War” and an expected on-target rendition of “Mr. November”, following it up with the new fan favorite crooner Terrible Love. This is where we saw Berninger in all his glory. Wine glass in hand, microphone stand adjusted upright on his shoulder, he screamed out the song’s anthem-like lyrics (It takes an ocean not to break!) to much rapport. Altogether, this was a set any fan of The National would want. You had the energy, dramatic flair, and the songs to carry you throughout the set; a beautiful piece of architecture, so to speak. For the radio-friendly listener who happened to fall upon Terrible Love, The National gave them a wonderful foundation to start things off with.
Thirty minutes later, lights fell and the wild rumpus began, to appropriately paraphrase Maurice Sendak. After a few grindhouse-esque trailers appeared below a faux marquee that read: “Coming Soon! Arcade Fire!” (The Warriors was a nice touch), fans were finally treated to the “feature presentation” they had been waiting for…
Photo by Lauren Guagno
Month of May blared its angry, young guitar riffs, and ultimately drove straight into the audience. Fans sparked a short revolution when Richard Perry scattered across the stage, guitar in tow, with Will Butler shortly behind, who somehow appeared on both sides of the stage at once. It was wild. Of course, frontman Win Butler refuses to ride shotgun, and he made his presence very clear, as he stood straight and center, delivering the group’s new punky ode to creativity.
Not to surprise anyone or anything, the band followed the splintering open with Funeral classic, “Rebellion (Lies)”, only adding to the remarkable excitement and early setlist jitters. Once a closer for the indie troupe, the song brought out the charm in everyone, whether it be Régine Chassagnes interpretative dancing, violinist Sarah Neufelds impeccable precision amidst chaos, or drummer Jeremy Garas awe-inspiring consistency.The real gem, however, came when Win decided it was time to visit his fans, joining them in a sing-a-long as he marched into the nearby crowds. Mind you, this was the second song of the set.
Photo by Lauren Guagno
The surprises continued. Another early cut, Neighborhood #2 (Laika) saw Will battling his inner (and aggressive) Mozart as he skeptically decided which drum to use alongside a frantic Perry. Later on, “Intervention” and “My Body is a Cage” felt dusty yet welcome, both classics from the band’s 2007 sophomore slump-shattering Neon Bible. Although it would have been nice to see more material represented from the album – specifically (Antichrist Television Blues) or Windowsill – Arcade Fire, instead, wanted to keep the show’s themes in line with what “Intervention” (and to an extent, “My Body is a Cage”) has within it: a dark yet oddly uplifting feeling.
That’s the true blessing of an Arcade Fire gig – the elements. For one, there’s the chemistry. Call it a premature evaluation, but Win and Chassagne feel like a modern day Johnny Cash and June Carter. Like the late country legends, Win and Chassagne complement each other so well that it’s difficult to see the songs without them. In last night’s performance, the two clung on to each other (metaphorically, of course) during spot-on cuts of The Suburbs, Sprawl II, and even Haiti. Their eyes darted back, their focus innately in tune – its their relationship that makes the songs very, very real.
Towards the end, the crowd settled some, and Win observed this, stating that they weren’t nearly as strong as Friday’s audience. He instructed them to step up, admitting that they didn’t have much time left to compete. Instead of waiting, Butler & Co. took it upon themselves to lift the audience off their feet; after all, they do have the power to turn them on or off. Once they pummeled through one of their earliest singles, Neighborhood #3 (Power Out), the crowd was most definitely turned on.
Encores are encores, and slightly irritating (if not straight up predictable), but with a band like this, they do need that short break. You could tell as Gara raced off stage immediately following “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”. Once they returned, however, they punched out a jogging-turned-dancey rendition of “Ready to Start” and a slightly tuned down cut of “Keep the Car Running”. After a short pause, some thanks, and a shout out to Haiti, Win tugged at the curtain, announcing, “This song’s called ‘Wake Up Jesus, It’s Easter”, which essentially stole the show. As anyone would expect, audiences clapped, screamed, cried, and called out. A ha, the best element of all: the joy.
Photography by Lauren Guagno.
The National setlist:
Mistaken For Strangers
Afraid Of Everyone w/ Richard Reed Perry
Conversation 16 w/ Richard Reed Perry)
Start A War w/ Win Butler
Arcade Fire setlist:
Month of May
Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
City With No Children
The Suburbs (Continued)
My Body Is a Cage
No Cars Go
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
We Used to Wait
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
Ready to Start
Keep the Car Running
Gallery by Lauren Guagno