REVIEW: The National At The Academy Of Music



Colonel.jpgBY COLONEL TOM SHEEHY Since its construction in 1857, The Academy of Music has been known as “The Grand Old Lady of Broad Street.” In 1872, it hosted the Republican Convention which renominated President Ulysses S. Grant and believe it or not, in 1889, a special wooden floor was installed for the first indoor football game in Philadelphia between University of Pennsylvania and Princeton. These days it enjoys a reputation as the most prestigious and acoustically-perfect room in the city to hear a live musical performance. Before the opening of the Kimmel Center, the Academy of Music was home to the Philadelphia Orchestra which — under the direction of the legendary Eugene Ormandy — once backed up the equally legendary Vladimir Horowitz on his comeback tour, and on that same stage, Dylan went electric with The Band.

A night at the Academy of Music is always a memorable event, and last night’s bill with The National, Yo La Tango, and Wye Oak was distinguished and significant in its own way. The National have been described as somber, sad-core, gloomy and (by Phawker’s Editor-in-Chief) ‘Joy Division with horns.’ More importantly,  they just get more sharpened as songsmiths and recording artists with each new release as evidenced by last year’s High Violet album which they played nearly in its entirety last night, expanding the lushness, depth and stirring dynamics of the material in its live presentation.

The first thing that hit you was the sound: big, beautiful, funereal, full of dizzying highs and terrifying lows and edged in an acoustic clarity rarely afforded underground rock bands. Then you were drawn to the finest instrument on the entire stage, and that of course was the voice of the singer Matt Berninger, whose expansive baritone is both world-weary and warm, melancholy like the rain and friendly as a bro-hug. He could probably sing the listings of a telephone directory, and make it sound like a lost classic, as was the case with songs like “Runaway,” “Sorrow,” and “England” were such preeminent performances last night.

In addition to all this wonderfully bewitching music emanating from the stage, the production and lighting were both exquisite. As the band performed, there were various real time projections of them on a massive two story-high screen behind them. The closing song of the set was “Fake Empire” — from the 2007 album, Boxer — wherein Berninger sang, “Turn the light out say good night,” while the horns were blared furiously, the Dessner brothers flailed their guitars in the air, and the rhythm section held down by the Devendorf brothers kept the groove pulsating.

The National returned for a few encores, and Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo joined in on guitar for an exhilarating version of  “Terrible Love.” The energy roaring from the stage prompted Berninger to dive into the audience, and make his way through the crowd and head to the back of the room, where he walked along the circumference of the lower level taking a victory lap while still singing with mic in hand. This was followed by a tender a capella reading of “Vanderlyle Cry Baby Geeks.” In a word, glorious.

Yo La Tengo, hand-picked by The National, opened the show. Every indie-rocker worth his flannel knows Yo La Tengo formed in 1984 and that their named translates to “I have it.” Twenty-seven years on, they should consider changing the name of the band to “Todavía tienen que,” or they still have it. They still can seamlessly segue from tortured guitar noise freakouts to breezy folk-rock topped with ethereal vocal harmonies. Hands down, the highlight of their set was “Periodically Double or Triple” which featured Kaplan churning away on the keys in a manner which would have made Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs proud while bassist James McNew and drummer Georgia Hubley nailed down the greatest Stax-Volt groove never heard.

Opening this wonderful bill was Baltimore’s Wye Oak, touring in support of their latest release, Civilian. Guitarist Jenn Wasner’s vocals were dreamy and her guitar playing was nothing short of towering. And watching Andy Stack playing both drums and keyboard simultaneously was a complete delight. It is amazing that just two people can make a sound this big and powerful. The same bill will perform again tonight at the Academy of Music. If you can get a hold of a ticket, do so quickly.

Tom Sheehy is a scholar at University of Pennsylvania working toward his doctorate in 20th Century American History. Previously, Mr. Sheehy worked in the music business for thirty years doing publicity and marketing for record companies, radio stations, and concert promoters.

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