By Jon Stone | @jwstone - August 13, 2010
Last Saturday night, after a long day in the sun at Lollapalooza, I walked the six or so city blocks from where I was staying in Chicago to the House of Blues for the pre-Lolla appearance of The Antlers and The National. The House of Blues, notorious for its Vegas-esque swank and commercialized kitsch is situated on one of the prettiest corners of Chicago, right across the river from Dearborn and Wacker and at the foot of the Wilco-famous Marina Towers. It’s quite a beautiful place to be out walking especially on a clear summer night.
The show didn’t start until 11pm, and after being deer-tagged incorrectly, they wouldn’t let me up to my balcony seat until I went back (twice) to get the right wristband on. The main room at the House of Blues (there is a “back porch” room too) has a mid-sized foor area with two balconies that are mostly standing room only. I wasn’t down in the pit, but from my position on the first balcony, I seemed to be looking directly down on the stage. So, for all its over-the-top “we-are-the-rock-&-roll venue” posturing, I have to say that there isn’t really a bad seat in the house (of blues).
The venue sounds really great too, so they myst be doing something right. It was the first thing I noticed when The Antlers took the stage and fired into “Kettering” from last years’ Hospice. I saw them in the Spring and was still pretty on the fence then about whether or not I thought they have the staying-power they are going to need to last. After Saturday’s performance, I’m beginning to think that, indeed, they do.
Maybe it’s been touring with the National that has launched these guys into a new level, but something felt different on Saturday than it had earlier in the year. It wasn’t that the quality of their sound had improved, necessarily. In fact, lead-man Peter Silberman had a rasp in voice when he shot for some of his stratospheric high notes that can only be the indication of touring nearly incessantly for the last two years. Rather, there was certain confidence in their performance. Hospice is a thematically heavy record – one that might lend it self to timidity, or airlessness after so many nightly performed repetitions. Saturday night, though, the music seemed fresh. The highs and lows of “Sylvia” and the story of “Two” both made the goose bumps rise and when that kind of internalization occurs, I know that (at least for me) a band is onto something special.
Again, I can’t help but think about this band’s future. Albums like Hospice are brilliant but risky because of their cohesive “concept.” The songs hang together so well; they pick up on one another’s lyrics and emotion and in a lot of ways rely on each other for the full emotional impact. But this can be frustrating for some folks. The girl I stood next to said she had seen The Antlers play several times, but the songs all kind of blurred together. I can empathize with this sentiment. I think what needs to follow for this band – to push things to the next level, so to speak – is a record that packs the same kind of emotional impact as Hospice, but does so in a way that single songs can stand on their own and survive in the wild as distinct entities. The National’s “Mr. November,” for example, is a brilliant closer for the band’s record Alligator, but it also works anthemically for the band’s diverse live sets which contain songs across the National’s catalog. Pull that off, Antlers, and I think you’re here to stay.
A few brief words about the National’s set that followed. I’ve seen them play now four times and save for that first performance – which initiated me into complete and utter fandom -- the House of Blues was the best I’ve ever seen them. Matt Barninger seemed in an especially good mood and the band joked their way through most of the set announcing several songs by saying, “Alright, this is our party song.” Like he would the next day at Lolla, Richard Reed Parry joined them onstage for all of the songs from High Violet. He was barefoot and all smiles and very different than the crazed, costume-wearing member of Arcade Fire that I would see the next night.
The song that stuck out for me at both this show and the one that would follow the next day was “Apartment Story” from Boxer. It's a simple tune but has that great, classic-U2ish chorus ("Tired and wired we ruin too easy” and the line “we’ll stay inside till somebody finds us, do whatever the TV tells us… so worry not, all things are well, we’ll be alright, we have our looks and perfume on..” I love the imagery here and the rare positivity followed immediately with irony. This is why The National is an amazing band. Four times isn't enough. I can't wait to see them again.
Here’s the setlist for the evening:
Runaway / Afraid of Everyone / Brainy / Mistaken for Strangers / Anyone’s Ghost / Bloodbuzz Ohio / Squalor Victoria / Available / Conversation 16 / Sorrow / Apartment Story / Abel / England / Fake Empire / (encore) Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks / Secret Meeting / Mr. November / Terrible Love