Monday, December 5, 2011

Musicalia: World's Best Band at World's Shittiest Venue?

Perhaps a bit of hyperbole was employed in the title of this entry, but The National might just be the best band out there right now.

With seemingly every occasion to see The National occurring during SXSW, Fun Fun Fun, or ACL Festival, this has made it hard for Austinites to see them outside of the undesirable festival setting. In fact, since the last time I had tickets to see The National and foolishly elected to squeeze an Architecture in Helsinki show in rather than sticking around after Clap Your Hands Say Yeah opened, The National have not rolled through Austin outside of a festival weekend. During only one of those stops did they play a show in which one could actually buy tickets and that was during ACL weekend of 2008. Tickets for that Emo's show with Blonde Redhead and School of Seven Bells were extremely hard to come by, makiing this the first time they rolled through town without a festival bringing them here since 2005.

Unfortunately, this stop through town brought them to Austin Music Hall. While there may be worse venues in the world, I've not been to one. I saw Wilco at the Cedar Park Center. I saw Radiohead at Alpine Valley Outdoor Amphitheater. I saw Nick Cave at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland. These were absolutely worthless venues to be sure, but Austin Music Hall puts them to shame. Cursed with the acoustics so bad that an airplane hangar would be a marked improvement and a redesign that--having been clearly motivated by little other than greed--renders a full two-thirds of the balcony obstructed-view seating, Austin Music Hall is a wretched shithole that only a band of The National's ilk could succeed in drawing me through those fucking doors.

It appears to me that a visual aid may be helpful to demonstrate what I mean by obstructed view, so I took a photo. For those who don't know me, I stand 6'3". The photo I have uploaded is taken from the vantage point of someone who would have been taller than me by roughly half a foot (or a sixth of a meter, for you metric sons of bitches).
I am well aware that this is a shitty photo. It is really just a reference point.
From this vantage point, that is roughly 35% of the stage that is visible. If you are my height. TSLF was unable to see a fucking thing. For the entire show. It doesn't matter if you are closer to the front on the right or left side of the General Admission section of the balcony. It doesn't matter if you move farther towards the stage. The grade of the bleachers/risers is simply not steep enough for anyone to see.

Now, you may be wondering from where exactly did that greed line three paragraphs ago come, and I can answer that for you. Rather than have those bleacher seats extend to reasonable edge of the overhanging balcony they begin at least 15' back from the edge because there is a VIP section of seating that actually extends the balcony without maintaining a grade of stage visibility. For those keeping track at home, a conservative estimate would be roughly 500 people in the house who can see virtually none of the concert that they paid to see because an extension to a balcony gives them VIP seating at $20 more a ticket. If you were on the stage-left side of the venue, you saw the touring trumpeter, the touring trombonist, half of the Dessner Brothers (Bryce, I think), and half of Matt Derninger. That leaves half of Matt, an entire Dessner twin, and both Devendorf Brothers out of view.

Fuck you very much Austin Music Hall.

You are the worst venue in this town. By. Far.

Just sink into the ground and go back to your home in Hell. You can even get the entrance/exit right (you cannot walk straight up to the main entrance, you have to walk away from the nearest corner only to double back to that very corner). Were you designed by the same assholes who designed Austin's broke-ass highway system?

Rant over.


As for the music, once getting beyond the terrible acoustics in that godforsaken shithole, it had a lot to offer. I'll refrain from talking about Local Natives for the most part. I'm sure they're great guys, and I've been negative  for five paragraphs now, which is surely tiresome for all of y'all who are still reading. I know it's reductive, but they share many likenesses with Fleet Foxes, a band whose allure wore off for me. I can see why people like Fleet Foxes. I can see why people would like Local Natives, as well. For the most part, Local Natives were simply a little too psych folk for my liking.

The one exception to that, however, was their set closer "Sun Hands," which struck me as an ideal musical fit for Sons of Anarchy if 85% of the music on Sons of Anarchy didn't suck. In the live setting, it succeeded in channeling a propulsive Western feel that was genuinely interesting, especially at it built to a huge climax. Here's a video from SXSW of them performing it live to give you a sense of what I'm talking about. Once they hit the three-minute mark everything explodes, and it's transcendent. It's just that "Sun Hands" was the only song that grabbed me.

Luckily, The National were great. With only one exception, they sounded great. The one exception was not even remotely their fault, but during "Runaway," the show opener, there was a sound issue where the mic on the floor tom was mixed too loud and when combined with the higher bass line notes in the chorus were blaring over the top of everything else. It was odd and perhaps isolated to the area we were standing in, but it seems like whoever the sound engineer was at least got the issue fixed by the time the third song kicked off.

Aside from "Runaway" having that weird sound issue, everything sounded great. The somewhat reasonable concern that some of the slightly more low-key songs off of High Violet was completely unfounded. "Terrible Love" settled in shockingly well into the encore. "Bloodbuzz, Ohio," which I expected to play well live, far exceeded expectations and was much bigger than I had anticipated. "Anyone's Ghost" was sped up ever so slightly but played better for it. The percussion drove "Conversation 16"* much more than I could have thought likely.

*Does anyone else feel like the 
It's a Hollywood summer
You never believe the shitty thoughts I think
Meet our friends out for dinner
When I said what I said I didn't mean anything
We belong in a movie
Try to hold it together 'til our friends are gone 
section of the song evokes that scene in I'm Not There with Heath Ledger out to dinner with Charlotte Gainsbourg and their friends Grace and Martin where he opines that "chicks can't be poets," or is that just me?

As for the material off of Boxer, Alligator, etc., it was rock solid. "Apartment Story" and "Mistaken for Strangers" both played very much like the singles that they were and could have drawn in even the casual listener. "Squalor Victoria" and "Fake Empire" were every last bit of what I had hoped they would be. "Mr. November" was the huge rocker I'd heard it was, and it sure as hell appeared as though Matt Derninger went into the crowd during that one (in the encore), but no one upstairs could see this.

The most transcendent moment of the night definitely lied in the encore closer: "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks." Perhaps having taken a cue from their pals, Bon Iver and Megafaun, Matt, the two sets of brothers, and their two man brass section stepped out to the front of the stage sans amplification and belted out the closing track from High Violet. Every time I've seen a band do this it has fucking killed, and this was no exception. They walk up to the line marked 'earnest,' line their toes up just before the line, and it worked like a charm.

Between that and the legitimately funny between song banter, it was hard not to love the show. That is saying a lot because that venue is fucking godawful. The National were outstanding and solidified my growing belief that they may just be the best rock band out there. If ever there were someone capable of taking that title without squandering their talent and potential on deviating from their artistic ambitions in favor of chasing commercial success, it is The National. They are one of the few bands recording today whose albums get better with each release, and unlike much of what I hear these days, their albums don't release their hold on the listener. Ever.

Hopefully that praise made up for the rather lengthy rant I went off on at the beginning of this post. I'll leave you with the two following things: An Open Letter to Touring Acts Considering Venues In Austin, and an entire embedded concert.


Dear bands rolling through Austin, 

Please do not book your shows at Austin Music Hall. If you are big enough to play that fucking abomination of a venue, hold out for the Long Center, the Moody Theater, or the Paramount. 

The Citizens of Austin


If you didn't get to see the show last night, I did find a video of a full concert from Oakland in 2010. It was part of a graduate research project and was shot by a fella who cryptically goes by J. Flynn. More information on the recording can be found here. I know it wasn't easy to get tickets, since it sold out quickly, so I guess this is the next best thing. And unlike if you'd been to the show and been in the balcony, you can actually see this concert.

Guten tag.

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