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Ottawa Folkfest 2014 – The National

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The National - Ottawa Folkfest

Ottawa Folkfest 2014 — The National

Who: The National

From:  Cincinnati, Ohio

Where:  Ottawa Folk Fest 2014 at Hog’s Back Park 

When:  Friday, September 12th, 2014 

Total Score: 9/10

The National - Ottawa Folkfest

Style: There isn’t a band that serves as an adequate comparable to The National. Sure, upon hearing vocalist Matt Berninger’s melancholy, tortured baritone voice, it’s easy to point to bands such as Joy Divison and Interpol as instant comparisons. But, with all due respect to both alt-rock pioneers, the National aren’t anything like either of them. These guys are in a league of their own. They have crafted their own genre of music; one that seems straightforward and peaceful on the surface, but in reality is anything but. It might even be easy to swat these guys away after an initial listen by dismissing them as another stiff critically acclaimed dad-rock band. However, after a few spins of any National record, the immeasurable musical and lyrical depth of each track slowly presents itself. Before you know it, you’ve abandoned the rest of your music catalog in favour of lying in your bed to stare at the ceiling and listen to Boxer, while trying to figure out what the hell is so delightfully wrong with these five guys from Ohio. 

Crowd: Upon my initial walk in to Hog’s Back Park, I surveyed the seemingly youthful crowd and made the pretentious assessment that the majority of them were only there to see J.Cole, who played the Ravenlaw Stage an hour and a half before the National were set to take the Eh! Stage at 9:30pm. In fact, after Lee Fields and the Expressions left the latter at 8:00pm, I figured I had enough time to leave the crowd, drain a few pints of Beau’s and stuff my face with some mini donuts before sliding back up to the front rail undetected. However, to my bittersweet surprise I quickly realized this was not an option as the grass quickly became packed with an eclectic throng of National-lovers. When Berninger and Co. took the stage at 9:30pm, the dense crowd erupted and didn’t let up for a second. The National blasted through song after song with no time wasted, and the majority of concertgoers were well acquainted with the comprehensive setlist that was evenly split between tracks from Trouble Will Find Me, their latest record, and the rest of their catalog. The show was closed out with an acoustic rendition of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” and the bulk of the crowd impressively pulled their weight in providing backup vocals for Berninger and the boys.

Technicalities: In absolutely every sense of the word, these guys were tight. Make no mistake; this is a band of seasoned musicians that are masters of their individual crafts. Flanking the stage with a pair of Fender Jaguars, brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner highlighted every song with soaring, crystal-clear guitar lines. Each track contained an instance of six-stringed genius, whether it came from chaotic soloing from Bryce in songs that lacked them originally (“Don’t Swallow the Cap”,  “This Is The Last Time”) or beautiful, subtle fingerpicking on previously piano-heavy, guitar-absent tracks (“ADA”, “Fake Empire”). Aaron masterfully switched over to the piano a handful of songs, bassist Scott Devendorf was rock steady, and severely underrated drummer Bryan Devendorf seemed to play at double time and consistently threw jaw-dropping fills into every song. The instrumentation was filled out by a pair of horn players that made their presence felt throughout much of the setlist. Berninger’s spoken-word style of delivery, which is arguably the band’s defining trait, allows for his heavy-hitting lyrics to be felt more strongly by the listener, and both his voice and his poetry were in full effect on Friday night. The only knock on these guys that I could muster up is that their baroque, sonically-overloading live style occasionally caused certain instruments or elements of their sound to get lost in the colossal mix. However, I’m really digging deep for that one. These guys were dialed in all night.

The National perform at the Ottawa Folk Festival on Friday, Sept 12th, 2014. The Ottawa Folk Festival is one of the most popular music events in Canada’s capital. Ottawa Folk Festival Press Images Photo: Marc DesRosiers

Image: Swaggering onto the stage in identical black blazers that would be laughable on any other band but instead had me self-conscious about the goofy wool sweater I wore to the show, it became instantly obvious that The National are experts in more than just auditory stimulation. The stage was lined with identical Fender Deluxe Reverb amplifiers, which undoubtedly caught the eye of musician and non-musician concertgoers alike. The beautiful light show was nearly seizure inducing, and it played a huge role in enhancing a number of songs, specifically “Pink Rabbits”.

However, despite the musical prowess of his bandmates and the impressive stage setup, Berninger undeniably stole the show with his insane stage presence. Either he’s the best actor I’ve ever seen, or he truly is a tortured soul. Due to the fact that he probably concussed himself by repeatedly slamming his microphone against his skull, I’m inclined to go with the latter. His baritone vocals are fairly consistent on the record, but Berninger is a completely different animal when performing live. In addition to almost cracking his cranium, the vocalist seemed to genuinely shock much of the audience by screaming on a handful of cuts, repeatedly leaving the stage to fanatically run through the crowd, and generally behaving like a man possessed. I truly believe he is one of the best lyricists on the planet today, and his performance at Folkfest presented a strong case for him being one of the top frontmen as well.

Memorable Moments: For a show that was so grandiose, it’s probably unfitting that I pick a small, nerdy little fanboy detail for the most memorable moment. But I’m going to do it anyway. On “Squalor Victoria”, while Devendorf was laying down a formidable drum intro, Bryce Dessner grabbed a second guitar that was open-tuned, flipped it upside down and slammed the headstock against the ground alongside the beat to produce a cringe-inducing yet beautiful sound. I’ve never seen or heard anything like that. In a very big way, that little move epitomized what The National do best — they take something extremely simple and flip it on its head to create something unforgettable. 

Overall: The National came together on Friday night at Folkfest to create an musical environment that could best be described as beautifully oxymoronic: chaotic yet peaceful; frightening yet friendly. Or, if that doesn’t make sense, just take my word that they killed it and go buy the newest album. You’ll be a better person for it. 

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The National - Ottawa Folkfest

Review by Spencer Sikora

Pictures from Folkfest Media


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