Friday Night: The National At House Of Blues
Relive The National's performance via the photos in our slideshow.
Houston crowds like to party. The National does not.
These two seemingly indisputable musical facts led Aftermath to imagine all sorts of nightmare scenarios for the Brooklyn band's visit to House of Blues Friday night, from the phantasmagorical - all the negative energy in the room leads to the first-ever case of spontaneous onstage combustion - to the mundane but all too plausible: Fed up with trying to compete with the crowd noise, temperamental front man Matt Berninger simply stalks offstage in disgust.
Neither of those things happened, or even came close. Instead, we watched as a much larger crowd than we expected - not everyone went to Austin City Limits this weekend, apparently - settled in and shut up for a generous set by a band that, as icy and distant as it can come across on record, was just as warm, engaging and surprisingly soulful live.
It was the soulful part that impressed us the most. Preferring to see how an artist's new work strikes us live and then investigate the recording should we like what we hear, Aftermath admits we have limited listening experience with The National's new album, High Violet - along with Arcade Fire's The Suburbs and Vampire Weekend's Contra, one of three so-called indie-rock LPs to debut in the Billboard Top 10 this year.
And so, starting with opener "Runaway," none of the Violet songs quite contradicted the generally held belief that The National is the principal heir to college-rock's great brooders of the '80s, chiefly R.E.M. and Joy Division. "Brooding," in fact, was just about the first word we wrote in our notebook, with the tag "that word will be used a lot."
Actually, it wasn't. Almost as quickly, we picked up on how the complement of horns The National brought along both softened the songs' sharp edges and lengthened the shadows they cast. We had to adjust our vantage point in HOB's crowded Music Hall to make sure the horns were really there, but indeed they were, adding a chorale-ish air to "Runaway," but also making "Anyone's Ghost" and "Mistaken for Strangers" sound somehow more haunted than they would have otherwise.