Wye Oak, hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, was first. Their opening song was strong, but an early cut that few audience members recognized. Luckily, redemption came early to the alt-rock newcomers when the second song they busted out was single "Holy Holy" from their most recent album Civilian. Vocalist/guitarist Jenn Wasner belted the difficult chorus with ease, pushing the limits of her impressive vocal range. A front woman whose falsetto can prevail over a deafening whirl of electric guitar and percussion is a true gem, and Jenn proved herself to be one. The crowd reached a point of elation when the opening chords of Civilian's title track chimed through the acoustically unsound theatre. Wye Oak traipsed off stage with a crowd full of newly declared fans.
After a quick set change, L.A. band Local Natives took the stage. Congratulating Chicago on our recent snow and promptly beginning their set, singer Taylor Rice enchanted the crowd with both his personality and voice. Local Natives played a well-rounded set, featuring about half of their debut album Gorilla Manor interspersed with new songs. The new material maintained the essence of the band with flawless harmonies and intricate guitar picking, while adding a new depth to their already strong catalogue. They closed with the single that catapulted them to notoriety, “Airplanes.” Its strong mandolin riff and catchy chorus enthralled the audience and energized them for the main event that we had all been waiting for.
Though both opening acts were strong in their own rights, no band could appease the crowd’s thirst for headlining melancholy rockers The National. Right on time, a giant screen hanging from the rafters of the stage shone with a black-and-white footage of the band preparing backstage. Some members were enjoying each other’s company; others paced back and forth nervously anticipating the electrically charged crowd awaiting. After a few long minutes of spying on the band, they finally vanished from the shot and appeared on stage.
The band took the stage with authority and tore into “Runaway” from their most recent album High Violet. They continued to meander through their breakthrough album Boxer as singer Matt Beringer swigged white wine as if it were water. For nearly the first half of the show, he seemed unaffected by the impressive amount of alcohol he’d consumed. His wails consumed the expansive theatre as he delivered a passionate rendition of “Squalor Victoria.” Matt’s drunkenness wasn’t evident until it was time to introduce the brass section. He fumbled through names and attempted to regain composure, but trusted multi-instrumentalist Aaron Dessner had already begun the recognizable piano intro of “Fake Empire.”
The band then abandoned the stage briefly and promptly returned for an encore. The beginning was rocky to say the least, as Matt forgot the lyrics to “About Today.” After which, he claimed that he knew “about 15% of the lyrics.” Just when it seemed as if the Cincinnati five-piece was going to abandon the encore, Matt redeemed himself with one of my favorite National songs, “Mr. November.” It’s an overlooked cut from Alligator, but it is one of the rawest songs in their catalogue and showcases Matt’s powerful voice and emotional performances.
The highlight of the night was indefinitely Matt’s crowd surfing during “Terrible Love." His vocals were surprisingly flawless for a man being groped and manhandled by hundreds of awestruck strangers and devoted fans. Maybe that’s what makes The National a band of true rock stars; they overcome their on-stage hiccups and deliver an unforgettable show.
A huge surprise for the audience was the final song, “Vanderlylle Crybaby.” It was shocking not just for the song’s obscurity, but also for its delivery. Members of both Wye Oak and Local Natives took the stage and sang along, beer and wine bottles in hand, as The National delivered a completely unplugged rendition sans amps or mics.
While there were some stumbles and minor hiccups throughout the night, neither the audience nor the bands seemed fazed. It was one of those rare concerts where none of the trivialities mattered, not the lackluster acoustics or a drunken lead singer; it was all about the music. One of those nights when we realize why we parted with 40 hard earned dollars and braved the chilling winds of Uptown—it’s all about the music.
Check out more show reviews:
Moon Furies at Double Door
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at Lincoln Hall
Austra, Young Galaxy, Tasseomancy at Empty Bottle
Prince Rama, Indian Jewelry at Subterranean
Shonen Knife at the Empty Bottle