It's official: The National are a great band.
The Cincinnati group's newly released LP, High Violet, is their third stellar album in a row, completing the astonishing trilogy they began with 2005's Alligator and 2007's Boxer. Like those records, High Violet finds the band in peak form, maintaining a calculated mastery of their material that begins when the needle drops and doesn't let up until the final track fades away.
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If any doubt remained as to their prowess, the sold-out Sunday performance at Spreckels Theatre put it to rest. Singer Matt Berninger looked as dapper and erudite as ever, dressed in a blazer and refilling the glass of champagne he toted around the stage. Despite an occasional feedback problem, the crystalline sound at Spreckels conveyed every bit of nuance in his signature baritone.
The band expertly recreated High Violet standouts "Sorrow," "Anyone's Ghost" and "Terrible Love," saturating the intimate venue with its lush, full sound. In between songs, Berninger paced about, sizing up the crowd as he dragged the mike stand around like a broom.
Bryan Devendorf blurred the line between upbeats and downbeats with his innovative, twitchy percussion, while stoic twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner crafted a wall of sound with their guitars. Even the lighting was spot-on, such as when it turned an ominous, sanguine red during the chorus of "Bloodbuzz Ohio" (MP3).
For such a refined band, The National weren't afraid to cut loose. Berninger repeatedly abandoned his usual croon for a jarring, agonized scream, and a manic rendition of Boxer's "Squalor Victoria" ended with him jumping into the crowd and singing the song's freakout climax on his back.
Unfortunately, those weren't the evening's only dramatic moments -- as the set progressed, a certain tension developed between the band and audience. San Diego crowds have an uncanny ability to get under musicians' skins, screaming out inane requests and nonsensical comments. Berninger's pleas for the obnoxious crowd to shut up were met with collective laughter, to which the band could only exchange fed-up glances. More and more acts have been skipping San Diego lately -- the next time they tour, don't be surprised if the National do likewise.
The ill-mannered crowd could do little to detract from what was otherwise a terrific show. Riding high on the success of their new record, the National delivered a tour-de-force performance, evoking a dark night of the soul but taking solace in the impending dawn. It was a brilliant set, abounding in emotional depth and expert songcraft. But what else would you expect from a great band?