1. The National originally only announced a few end-of-the-year shows at the Beacon Theatre. Due to popular demand, they kept adding dates until they had a week's worth of shows lined up at one of New York's swankiest venues. I guess there are people in this city who can relate to tales of urban desperation and trying to keep your soul intact in the face of adult responsibilities, huh? The group has taken this opportunity to stretch out and have fun. Last night they spiked the setlist with rarely played songs from their self-titled debut and sophomore album Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, soundtrack cut "Exile Vilify" and a new work-in-progress, the lovely folk strum "I Need My Girl." I've seen The National a bunch of times, and they're always great. But the setlists have tended to be almost completely devoted to the album at the time (be it Boxer or High Violet) and the "hits" from Alligator, so it was a treat to spend time with the New Orderish sprint of "Son" and a full-throated roar "Thirsty." No "Murder Me Rachel," though.
2. These guys! For such a somber band, Matt Berninger and the Dessners were a fine comedy pair last night. Berninger talked at length about going for a jog and hurting his leg, to which Aaron deadpanned: "Yeah, I was wondering why you did that in the middle of a six-night show." Later, Berninger recounted a story about a South By Southwest gig in 2002. The band was hoping to get discovered that night. Instead, Berninger forgot the words to one song, and on another one sang the lyrics to a completely different song. He then proceeded to sing the wrong verse during the opening of "Sorrow" (it didn't seem like a joke), causing them to start over. Guitarist Bryce Dessner's deadpanned frustration look was priceless.
3. Jenn Wasner of openers Wye Oak came out to play guitar and sing backing vocals on "Sorrow" and "Bloodbuzz Ohio." The added mournful harmonies and guitar acrobatics were much welcome, as was Wasner and Berninger's interplay. (There was much accusing the other group of being the best group in the world.)
4. There are a lot of valid concerns to be had about the homogenization of indie rock and the NPR affect about what music gets the spotlight, but when a group of stylistically different artists are unfairly lumped together and dismissed as Dad Rock, I want to say "hipster, please. The National go hard." They can brood and they can do gentle balladry, but they showed again last night when it's time to scream and offer up some lacerating crescendos, "Able" and "Mr. November" get the job done, and shame plenty of supposedly "tougher" bands.
5. The night ended with a lovely, and completely unplugged, sing-a-long to "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," featuring the band's horn and string section and Wye Oak singing along sans microphone. It felt seasonably appropriate, even if the song has nothing to do with the holidays. Also, the National should feel proud of themselves that their fans were largely able to sing along in tune.