Live at the Red Star, Baton Rouge, LA 10/25/2005
Its hard to feel good about the waste-laying of New Orleans in any way at all, but it has definitely had positive effect on the quality and quantity of live acts that are pumping through my dot on the grid. Baton Rouge used to get bands mostly because it was a good stopping point on the way to or from Houston, but has never exactly lived up to the crowd potential of other big college towns like Chapel Hill or Athens or even Columbia, MO. I made some resolutions last night after seeing a band I think may have produced my Album of The Year in a slight crowd to actually do something about it, and have some connections to do more than start another soon-to-fail zine, so we shall see. Baton Rouge will be the new Chapel hill, you just wait.
This diatribe is brought to you courtesy of a superb show by my new favorite indie rock band The National, whose album Alligator is in serious contention for album of the year. I reviewed it here a couple months ago, but I want to underline their name a second time on my notebook cover and add exclamation points. The National are fucking great. Their live presence hits dead on with the album, dueling rhythm guitar, pulsar bass lines and singer Matt Berninger's baritone recounting of love and loss on a first name basis and his currently peerless knack for dropping a devastating line. The bit from "Mr. November" a song about no longer being the man you thought you would be back when your were 18 and ruled the world
I wish that I believed in fate
I wish I didn't sleep so late
I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders
I'm Mr November! I won't fuck us over! (repeated)
kills me every time. In person, the band lives up to some of the Joy Division comparisons that are inevitable, except that instead of being a meth-eyed epileptic spinning out of control like the late Ian Curtis, Berninger offers a more restrained but equally emotional delivery of lethal does of honest takes on The Big Topics.
The live highlight for me was the aforementioned "Mr. November" and the set (and Alligator) opener "Secret Meeting" which may be the best opening track this side of "The Queen is Dead." The way the guitarists ripple over each other, creating an almost cricket-like melody and a math-steady beat, giving Matt a bed in which to recount his visions, building up into a crashing intensity only to all stop with a quick skid, its beautiful. You know how pretty much every band that has a dense and lovely album sucks when they play live? The National prove that they just aren't trying hard enough. VIP goes to the guitarist that switched out between a delicious red Gretsch, silver sparkly Danelectro used mainly for feedback, a majestic road-worn, black and sunburst Gibson electric and even bass once in a while, all without a pick. On top of that, he was evidently tasked with making the announcements, an activity his seeming meek demeanor didn't really lend itself to, but it made the whole thing kinda charming. That and when Matt, right before the encore sort of apologized for keeping his eyes closed while he sings, because it freaks him out to see a bunch of people. With the elegant confessions he makes his songs from, I can see why.
I picked up the EP Cherry Tree that came out shortly before Alligator, and it is just as splendid a thing. "Wasp nest" makes its mark as yet another great jingle-bell song (along with the Stooges "Gimme Danger") and poses Matt's voice in a deep almost country-ish singer-songwriter tone. "All the Wine" appears in a more blissed out version, sounding like Big Star covering the song off Alligator, its more spare structure making brilliant lines like
I'm a perfect piece of ass, like every Californian
So tall I take over the street with highbeams at my back
A wingspan unbelievable, I'm a festival, I'm a Parade
And all the wine is all for me
glow like the birthday candle he later in the song declares himself to be. "All Dolled-Up in Straps" has an Arab Strap/Leonard Cohen dark sexy half spoken allure that evokes that sensation of choking back your liquor before embarking on something you know is a bad idea. A woman in our party described his singing as 'it makes you want to slit your wrists but in the sweetest possible way" and I think she may be onto something. There is a definitely glowing ember in all this melancholy, like how melancholy is supposed to be. The title track and "About Today" both keep up this thick air. Listening to it unfurl around me last night reminded me of a more dramatic time. It made me want to do desperate things, not stupid destructive Iggy Pop destructive things, but desperate things, like start smoking again, like to kiss son random girl that caught my eye, to tear up a little and tear out of there in a mad rush. I did none of the things, instead opting to spend some more money at the merch table and dump some praise on the band. But I wanted to, and that's what's important.That's how I want rock'n'roll to feel. The National is some good stuff, and even if you are long past your cutting stage, it might just open up some old wounds you didn't intend to have heal.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com