Review: The National Get Extremely Vivid for Night One at the Auditorium Theatre

All my life I’ve dreamt of seeing The National in concert. More accurately, I’ve dreamt of seeing them live for only the past four years, but that doesn’t sound as dramatic. The National occupies a very special place in my heart of hearts for a number of reasons. For one, they were the band that introduced me to a whole new kind of music and, in turn, a whole new world of artists and bands I never would have found otherwise. That alone is a gift that can never be repaid no matter how hard I try. I never once had to try and get into The National. They simply came into my life when I needed them most without ever even knowing I needed them, which to me, is the most beautiful aspect of the band; from the second I heard “Light Years” for the first time, I knew this band came together specifically for me. Going into the first night of their four-night residency at the Auditorium Theatre, it’s safe to say my expectations were high but I was more so just incredibly grateful to be given the opportunity to see my favorite band live on the first night of their tour in a spectacularly gorgeous theater I had never been to before all in my favorite city. Also, Soccer Mommy opening? C’mon, it just doesn’t get better.

By the time Soccer Mommy, Nashville’s unsung indie superstars, took the stage, the audience was still very much trickling in. It was my first time seeing Soccer Mommy, so take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt but you could tell they had that opening act syndrome of knowing no one in the audience was there just for them. I can’t blame them since they were probably right given the ticket prices but they still trudged through and put on a great performance playing songs mostly from their last two albums, color theory released in 2020, and Sometimes, Forever released just last year.

I’m still in the process of warming up to Sometimes, Forever but color theory is already an all-time indie classic in my mind, and I was excited to see what they would play from it. They opened with “Bones”, the fantastic opener to their newest album that experiments with a more dreamy, bejeweled sound compared to their past works. From “Bones” they transitioned into what is undoubtedly their biggest hit, “circle the drain” from color theory. What surprised me about their set was how psychedelic and jammy it was for a band that I considered to be squarely in the space of writing catchy grungey indie pop hooks. Songs like “lucy”, “crawling in my skin”, and “Darkness Forever” made for some trippy scenes and brought an extra layer of enjoyment that I wasn’t expecting from their set. Other highlights from their set included “Shotgun”, the lead single, and my personal favorite track from their new album, and the age-old classic, “Your Dog”, from their 2018 album Clean. Their experimental and dark indie pop sounds made for a perfect aperitif to The National and I was glad to see a packed venue by the time they played their last song.

Even before the lights went down and we got our first glances of the band through a live feed of them getting ready beside the stage, my heart was fluttering and my face was grinning uncontrollably. I already knew they were going to open with “Once Upon A Poolside,” the opening track to their new album First Two Pages of Frankenstein, but that didn’t stop my mind from professionally racing with all the possibilities of what surprises they had in store for us that evening. In a smart yet expected move, they opened their set with four in a row from First Two Pages of Frankenstein, their entrancing new album released just last month, to let the audience know just what they were there for. I love the album versions of all these songs, but you can’t deny that there’s an extra special touch of magic present in their live performances. “Eucalyptus” and “Tropic Morning News” never sounded better and truly served as great first chapters to their set. After our initial dosage of their new album, the band took out an oldie-but-goodie with “Mistaken for Strangers”, the energetic Boxer classic that undoubtedly brought all those still on the fence about standing to their feet.

“Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” continued the upbeat trend until the band slowed it down a bit with another Boxer classic, “Green Gloves.” At this point in the set, I was anxiously awaiting my first favorite and I had no idea what it would be. Every song so far had been songs I love but none have been bonafide Lorenzo favorites and the anticipation was killing me. Well, I ate my own words pretty damn quick as guitarist Aaron Dessner introduced what would be “Slow Show,” my absolute favorite The National song and truly one of my most beloved songs ever written. To say I cried a little would be a slight understatement as the song absolutely floored me live and was surprisingly different in terms of instrumentation from most live versions I had heard up until that point but still had every ounce of grandeur as the original. They brought us safely back to First Two Pages of Frankenstein with electrifying performances of “Alien” and “Grease In Your Hair” which were probably my favorite of the night from that album. Anyone who is at all doubting the staying power and brilliance of their new album needs to see these songs played live to fully understand what the hell the rest of us are talking about.

For their next big surprise, they brought out a couple of songs I wasn’t expecting from my favorite album of theirs, 2017’s Sleep Well Beast. “Day I Die” was a song I was sure I wasn’t going to get the privilege of air-drumming to live and definitely didn’t think they’d follow it up with “Walk It Back”, but here I was all shell-shocked and happily dumbfounded. If those songs weren’t enough of a surprise then get ready for this: they played “Humiliation”, one of the more underrated tracks from Trouble Will Find Me that had only been played once since 2014 until Thursday night, and transitioned so effortlessly into “Murder Me Rachel”, a strong highlight from their second album, Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, that hadn’t been played live in almost 10 years. Anytime you see The National live and they play a song from their first two albums, just know that’s the universe cosmically re-aligning itself for you and that it might not happen again for a very long time.

The surprises just kept coming as they debuted a new song even newer than those on First Two Pages of Frankenstein called “Turn Off The House”. It didn’t sound too far off the style of their new album but it had a much more old-school, pre-High Violet era quality to it evident in the shininess of the guitars and the driving rhythm of the drums. The fact that we might be getting a 10th studio album by The National this soon after First Two Pages of Frankenstein has me shaking and hyperventilating.

The last leg of their pre-encore set included a stream of classics such as “Pink Rabbits”, “England”, “Graceless”, and “Fake Empire”. “Pink Rabbits”, one of the absolute highlights of their entire discography for me, left me trembling as they climatically built up to the “Now I only think about Los Angeles when the sound kicks out” part of the song; if you know, you know. “England”, a song known for its intense musical climax, certainly didn’t help my “Pink Rabbits” recovery but I’m not entirely mad about it. Before “Light Years” got me hooked in 2019, “Graceless” was actually the first song I heard from the band. I didn’t really care for it at the time but everyone loves a glow-up, and hearing it live at my very first concert for the band felt like a pretty good glow-up moment to me.

The band took a short intermission and then hit us over the head with a five-song encore that began with their 2022 single, “Weird Goodbyes”. Even though it didn’t make it onto First Two Pages of Frankenstein, it undoubtedly has that same core sound to it that feels comfortably snuggled in-between Trouble Will Find Me and Sleep Well Beast. They then brought the hurt with back-to-back certified ragers: Alligator’s bombastic “Mr. November” and “Terrible Love”, the opening track to their 2010 album, High Violet. We did miss out on vocalists Matt Berninger’s trademark crowd surfing for “Mr. November” but that was probably for the best as the seated nature of the Auditorium Theater doesn’t play well the time-honored tradition; I can’t say I blame him.

To juxtapose the anthemic energy of the prior two songs, they followed up with possibly my favorite performance of the night in “About Today”, the mesmerizing and deeply melancholic acoustic ballad from their 2004 EP, Cherry Tree. I’ve watched countless performances of this song online and not one of them properly prepared me for the life-changing metamorphosis the song built up to in its final moments. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced live before and I mean that fully and earnestly. What drummer Bryan Devendorf percussively accomplished during that performance was nothing short of a musical masterclass in tension-building all leading up to an explosive finale that left my heart scrambling for a chair to sit down in and ponder life.

Thinking that was it and being so so thankful for the 20+ song set I had just witnessed, I couldn’t believe they had one more in them with “Send For Me.” Not only does this song make for the perfect closer to First Two Pages of Frankenstein but it really did make for the perfect finale to one of the best shows I’ve been lucky enough to see with my own four eyes (contactless since ‘98, baby.) The only disappointment I felt leaving the show was that I didn’t buy tickets for the next three. For those who did, or for really anyone going to even one of the next three, y’all are in for the sweetest treat of your lives. I can only imagine what classics, unreleased new gems, and underappreciated rarities they’ll surface in the remainder of their Auditorium Theatre residency.

Sleep well beasts.

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Lorenzo Zenitsky

Lorenzo Zenitsky is a Chicago-based software engineer, amateur bedroom metal musician, and a semi-frequent drinker of coffee but only if it's iced. If he's not admiring his terrible Simpsons tattoos in a gently cracked mirror, he's usually at a local show vibing to great tunes and abhorrently priced beer. $15?! Get outta here...