Last week, the Oakland Fox Theater and Another Planet Entertainment featured yet another great act, the National, who graced the venue for not just one night, but two.
Opening for the National was Ramona Falls, a similar softer indie rock band from Portland, OR. Ramona Falls was an excellent choice of opener for the National; their similarities complemented each other and, because of that, played precisely to the taste of the National’s fan base, whetting the audience’s auditory palate before the National took stage. Like the National, Ramona Falls has a strong lead singer, Brent Knopf – also of Menomena – whose voice has incredible depth and clarity, which can easily and quickly mesmerize any listener. Supporting Knopf’s enthralling vocals is a strong repertoire of instrumentation that replaces the usual electric guitar with an acoustic one – a refreshing and appropriate substitution for the type of music Ramona Falls creates. Along with the softer, acoustic guitar, Ramona Falls adds very complementary, delicate piano segments reminiscent of Grizzly Bear’s compositions, which lend a refreshing and soothing quality to its music.
Despite Ramona Falls’ rather gentle sound, which could easily cause listeners to drift off into a peaceful trance, the band still manages to infuse its songs with a strong pulse, thanks to the lively, staccato drumming of Paul Alcott. The band also manages a balance of liveliness with a tinge of angst and, although Ramona Falls has the potential to become whiney, the drums, as well as the band’s mid-tempo pace, offset this. Furthermore, the band’s attitude and ability to entertain the audience between songs lent them even more character and cred. Unlike many other acts, Ramona Falls was not ashamed to promote themselves unabashedly during their performance and, importantly, repeated their name multiple times so the audience would not forget who was opening. The way in which Ramona Falls approached this shameless promotion – without rubbing the audience the wrong way, but with a great sense of humor – was truly ingenious and something other bands may want to take note of for future reference. The drummer, who did the majority of the shameless plugging, would first ask the audience something along the lines of, “So, what do you guys think of the National? Man, they’re good! My favorite song of theirs is ‘Mr. November,’ but they’re not going to f***ing play it…. Ramona Falls is pretty good, too. In fact, here’s my favorite Ramona Falls song!” and then Ramona Falls would launch into another song. By the end of their set, Ramona Falls proved that they, in fact, were quite worthy of their shameless self-promotion and likely influenced the National to play “Mr. November” during the encore.
After Ramona Falls did a fine job of opening, the National took stage, promoting its latest album, High Violet, which was released on May 11, and entertaining the audience with a great set. Throughout the set, the National played a wide span of songs from several of their albums, including Alligator and Boxer, playing an equal amount of songs from Boxer – released in 2007 – as from its newest album.
Anyone who has heard even just a single song by the National knows that its most distinctive quality is the richly smooth and deep baritone of lead singer Matt Berninger – a voice that is capable of coating the National’s brooding lyrics in a thick, soothing molasses that tastes sweet and delicious to the aural senses. To put things in perspective, Berninger and the rest of the National are so talented that they managed to transform some rather goofy lyrics into something that sounds quite serious and brooding. Take, for example, “Conversation 16” off High Violet: The chorus is, “I was afraid I’d eat your brains / I was afraid I’d eat your brains / ‘Cause I’m evil / ‘Cause I’m evil,” which somehow sounds quite poignant and sincere when sung in Berninger’s baritone. Paired with lyrics that are both melancholy and interesting, the National creates a sonic atmosphere that makes a deep impression, even upon first listen. The band also breathes this deep impression of talent and novelty into its live shows, mixing violin with trombone and trumpet – brass instrumentation not often seen even in the most “indie” of acts – with the typical guitar, bass, drum and keyboard ensemble.
Although one may guess that the National is as relaxing and laid-back to watch live as its albums may imply, the band put on an incredibly entertaining and exciting performance. The violinist would often come down from his raised stage in the corner to jam with the drummer. When not tied to his stand-up mic, Berninger would take every opportunity to step back to groove with the drummer and his supporting guitarist and bassist. Even tied to the mic stand, Berninger was still entertaining, rough housing the mic during most songs. Throughout the show, the National succeeded in riveting the audience’s attention with both its music and its penchant for showmanship. Before the National returned to stage for an encore, the entire band played an incredibly rousing version of “Fake Empire” that shook the Fox Theater with its energy and easily marked one of the two major highlights of the show. The other highlight was a very unexpected move by Berninger – during the last song or two of the set, he climbed off stage with his mic, complete with its long wire, and wandered around the entire pit while performing.
Overall, the National exceeded expectations, not only playing its sophisticated, distinct version of indie rock perfectly, but surprising with its live performance and energy, solidifying its place as an album chart-topper, as well as an equally talented live act.