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Live Review and Photos – The National, Neko Case, and Sharon Van Etten, September 11, 2011, Hollywood Bowl – Los Angeles, CA

In this music age in which we live, traditional metrics such as album sales and radio airplay do not accurately convey an artist’s popularity like they used to. A more accurate measure is by the venues that they can pack, and in Los Angeles, the Hollywood Bowl is a marker for someone having “made it.” This year, Robyn and TV On The Radio are scheduled to headline the Bowl for the first time, and on Sunday, The National joined the select club. But, it is one thing to get to the Hollywood Bowl, but what you do once you arrive is something else altogether. Some groups (Belle & Sebastian, The Decemberists, Bright Eyes) perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, others, like Phoenix and Vampire Weekend did last year, pack their bill with other quality acts to alleviate some of the pressure, and, of course, give their audience their money’s worth. The National certainly did the latter of these, inviting Neko Case and Sharon Van Etten to share the stage as openers, but none was necessary to sell the band as artists worthy of this prestigious billing. No, The National deserve the large stage as much as any band in recent memory, and their performance was indicative of this.

Not that the strong pedigree of the support hurt. Opening the evening to a surprisingly large early evening turnout was Sharon Van Etten and her band, playing a brief thirty minute set of mid-tempo numbers that showcased why the artist has been receiving all her strong media buzz over the past couple years. Drawing almost entirely from her last album, Epic, Van Etten made it apparent from the get-go that she was honored to be playing the Hollywood Bowl, joking that it was “no big deal.” She even used the opportunity to offer up a new song, “All I Can,” before closing with perhaps her most beloved tune, “Love More,” in which she went solo with a strange, box-like instrument. Though Van Etten was well served by her strong backing band throughout her set, the conclusion reminded the audience that this tiny little lady can captivate just as well by herself, and luckily it would not be the last we would see of her for the night.

Unlike Van Etten, Neko Case was no stranger to the Bowl, having previously opened for Willie Nelson a few Septembers back. Case seemed to still think it was that same era, opening her set with four straight songs from 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, of which “Maybe Sparrow” soared over the crowd like its titular bird and “Margaret Vs Pauline” demonstrated Case’s greatest gifts as a songwriter: her subtle storytelling and the understated melodies with gigantic payoffs. The set saw Case joined midway through by famed producer T-Bone Burnett, but Case stayed clear of some of her more rocking numbers, instead opting to showcase her unquestionably powerful voice. And, when you are dealing with Neko Case, this is generally enough.

Now, one of the overarching elements of the evening was the fact that the day marked the ten-year anniversary of September 11th, with KCRW DJ Jason Bentley taking the microphone between sets to give a heartfelt statement about the how events like this will help us all continue to move forward. On the sides of the stage, American and Californian flags both stood at half-mast. And while this is a day that bring back painful memories for all Americans, it is hard to deny that New Yorkers might feel particularly overcome with emotion, having had the worst of the attacks directly affect their hometown and day-to-day lives. But, for the most part, The National put any heavy heartedness aside for their inspired set, only bringing up the date before a performance of “Thirsty,” of which frontman Matt Berninger noted was written about a week after 9/11 and had not been performed in a very long time. It was obvious the emotion that the song stirred up in the band, and for a brief moment, the audience could directly connect to some of the feelings that New York residents might have about the event.

The rest of The National’s 90 minute set was notable for the ease of which the band performs. Berninger’s barritone usually drips with fluidity and natural grace, as if the voice does not know its own power on subtle tunes like opener “Runaway” or Boxer standout “Slow Show.” The rest of the band follows suit, with the Dessner brothers never seeming to try too hard in creating vivid backdrops for Berninger’s vocals to rest, and drummer Bryan Devendorf, the band’s unheralded MVP, stealing the show without ever appearing to overstretch. This sort of laid-back, everyman quality to the band could hinder their “rock star” appeal, but the band saves up their spotlight moments to make them count, whether that be Berninger’s freakout at the end of “Squalor Victoria,” the introducing of handclaps between verses in “Fake Empire,” or the Dessner brothers holding their guitars high in the sky for the song’s conclusion.

But, this was the Hollywood Bowl, and The National had a fair share of treats for fans looking for something special. The Calder Quartet was employed to provide string backing for a number of songs, including a gut-punching rendition of High Violet notable “England.” Opener Sharon Van Etten returned to the stage to provide the same part she does in the recorded version of “Think You Can Wait.” And, most notably, Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, performed with the band for four tunes, ranging from additional guitar work on “Terrible Love” to a full-fledged duet on “Sorrow.” Clark, whose new album is in stores today, wore high heels and a tiny black dress, causing Berninger to comment that he almost wore the same outfit, clearly as taken with the musician as most men seem to be. But, in the end, it was just the band on stage for closer “About Today,” a deep-cut that shows the band on slow-burn mode, eventually allowing them to let loose for a jaw-dropping finish. It was a paradigm of triumph, with the band that is so notable for sad songs able to share smiles, and join a select group of artists to conquer the Hollywood Bowl.

Sharon Van Etten setlist:

Peace Signs
Save Yourself
One Day
Don’t Do It
All I Can
Love More

Neko Case setlist:

That Teenage Feeling
Maybe Sparrow
Margaret vs. Pauline
Hold On, Hold On
City Swans
Magpie to the Morning
Calling Cards
Bracing for Sunday
Don’t Forget Me (Harry Nilsson cover)
Vengeance is Sleeping
Star Witness

The National Setlist:

Anyones’s Ghost
Blood Buzz Ohio
Slow Show
Squalor Victoria (w/ Calder Quartet)
Afraid Of Everyone (w/ St. Vincent)
Conversation 16
Sorrow (w/ St. Vincent)
England (w/ Calder Quartet)
Thirsty (w/ Calder Quartet and St. Vincent)
Fake Empire

Think You Can Wait (w/ Calder Quartet and Sharon Van Etten)
Mr. November
Terrible Love (w/ St. Vincent)
About Today

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