For a certain kind of person, it was a star-studded night last Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl. In addition to the names on the marquee, there were such luminous guests as T-Bone Burnett and St. Vincent, not to mention Neko Case’s fellow New Pornographer Kurt Dahle and the lost Wainwright half-sibling, Lucy Roche. Although none of these artists have achieved mainstream success (notwithstanding The National’s gold plaque for High Violet), anyone with an interest in Americana-inflected rock ‘n’ roll could not help but marvel at the array of musical talent brought to bear underneath the full Los Angeles moon.
Sharon van Etten kicked things off with an all-too-brief opening set bookended by highlights from her 2010 album Epic, “Peace Signs” and “Love More.” Her clear voice rang out through the cool evening air, spinning tales of love and heartbreak that were all the more transfixing for their emotional sincerity. Van Etten is an engaging performer (as well as a surprisingly capable guitarist, especially given that her huge red electric dwarfed her tiny frame), and seemed genuinely grateful for the opportunity to perform in such an impressive venue. The audience responded to her charm, and when she announced her last song, the cheers in the crowd were not the typical pleasure taken in an opening act finally making way for the big guns, but appreciation for her ability and enthusiasm.
It is not news that alt-country chanteuse Neko Case, whom all music writers are contractually obligated to refer to as “alt-country chanteuse Neko Case,” puts on a hell of a show. The flame-haired singer walked on stage to wild applause, which she quickly demonstrated was deserved by ripping through several songs off of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, including “That Teenage Feeling,” “Maybe Sparrow,” and “Hold On, Hold On.” Although this focus was unexpected (given that the album is now five years old), it paid off, as the twangy stomp of Fox Confessor was received rapturously by an audience already primed for songs that proudly displayed their folksiness. Case then added icing to the proverbial cake by bringing out T-Bone Burnett to join her band onstage, and his crunchier tones further enlivened a couple of new songs, as well as the Harry Nilsson original “Don’t Forget Me” as covered on her most recent album, Middle Cyclone. Backing Case up on vocals throughout her performance was Lucy Wainwright Roche (filling in for the ill Kelly Hogan), whose own musical pedigree is impeccable—she is Martha and Rufus Wainwright’s half-sister by way of their father Loudon, and her mother is Suzzy Roche, of seminal 80s folk trio The Roches. Although Wainwright did not perform any of her own material, the sheer fact of her presence, not to mention her adept harmonizing, was impressive enough.
After Case closed her set with a powerhouse version of “Star Witness,” one of her flat-out best songs, it seemed unlikely that The National would be able to live up to the standard set by their openers. For the most part, however, they more than held their own. Much of the credit for this success must go to singer and primary songwriter Matt Berninger, whose affecting baritone is unlike any other voice in rock ‘n’ roll (with the possible exception of Stephin Merritt). The downside of having such a unique instrument, of course, is that the other components of The National’s sound can get lost in the shuffle, which is problematic over the course of a lengthy headlining set. Fortunately, whenever the energy seemed to flag, the band emerged from the shadows in which they were shrouded and kicked into another gear—or maybe they were just throwing their horn section into the mix. Either way, it was effective, and Berninger demonstrated that he could do more than just croon, punctuating particularly dramatic moments with unexpected screeches and yelps. The first high water mark of their show, which was drawn largely from High Violet, came when Annie Clark, also known as St. Vincent, joined them for a stirring rendition of “Sorrow.” The climax, though, arrived during their final song, “About Today,” which Berninger concluded by holding aloft the large digital timer that was counting down the seconds to the scheduled end of the concert, and throwing it to the ground as the song reached its crescendo. It was a surprisingly powerful moment, and an altogether appropriate finale to a night that wove delicate beauty and raw emotion into a breathtaking tapestry.