A Special Evening with the National Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto ON, April 24
Published Apr 25, 2019The National's days of writing sweaty rock tunes are over, and so are their days of putting on sweaty rock shows. To baptize their upcoming eighth album, I Am Easy to Find, the indie rock stalwarts paid tribute to their ever-increasing classical leanings by gussying up the proceedings, which looked more like a night at the symphony than your typical rock concert.
The night kicked off with a screening of accompanying short film I Am Easy to Find, directed by 20th Century Women director Mike Mills and starring Alicia Vikander, which featured a medley of tracks featured on the National's album of the same name. Conceived by Mills after listening to the first batch of album tracks, the film blitzed through the life of Vikander's nameless protagonist, from birth to death, Vikander's character remaining unchanging as those around her age. It was a cinematic reflection of the National's ever-complicating music, as viewers juggled the on-screen action, descriptive captions, the musical soundtrack and, occasionally, dialogue to make sense of it all.
Following a Q&A moderated by Leslie Feist and a brief intermission, the band returned for a performance of the new tracks. While a curious move, given that the album hadn't even been announced when tickets went on sale, the band's MO was apparent as the set unfolded.
The songs of I Am Easy to Find serve as a natural progression of the National's oeuvre, building on the electronic-tinged meditations explored on the band's previous album, 2017's Sleep Well Beast, while also standing out among the group's most intricate works. With up to 18 players — including a seven-piece string section and special guest Feist — and Roy Thomson Hall's renowned acoustics in play, the songs' expansive arrangements were given full attention. No more than a few of these songs will likely stick around in the band's setlist for long, and those that remain will likely be rearranged to accommodate a vastly pared-down touring lineup — why not do them all justice at once?
Early highlight "The Pull of You" oscillated between lead singer Matt Berninger's full-throated yelps and fragile, string-backed spoken word, distilling the band's two most vastly different modes in a single song, while "Where is Her Head" found Berninger playing curator, spending most of the song striding about the stage silently as the trio of backing vocalists, including Feist, took the lead. These dynamics would have been lost in the band's typical stadium and festival gigs (or, for that matter, their sweaty rock club gigs of old). For a record that promises to be as intricate and delicate as I Am Easy to Find, a classical setting was definitely the right choice.
Before the night ended, the band whet the appetites of those hungry for the hits with their encore, including a rousing rendition of latest rock staple "This System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" that finally got the crowd standing and singing along as they'd been desiring all night, and closer "About Today," which has never fit in more with a setlist than this one, as if to tell the audience that the band's recent turns aren't without precedent. While the band will return to the area in June for what promises to be a more traditional affair, this event was a bold, inspired decision.