The indie-rock tag becomes more inclusive every year to the point where it now means “Musicians, Often White and Often Male, Who Do Vaguely Interesting Things with Guitars.” For a case study, go see the National on their current tour with Dirty Projectors. One band offers dense, rewarding music and gnomic lyrics that rarely fail to land, even if they feel overwritten. The other band is the National. Watching the former open for the latter is both annoying and edifying. Indie rock as construed at this show is a capacious idiom indeed.
The Dirty Projectors’ hocketed, deconstructed harmonies and jumpy time-sig changes are a delight to watch. David Longstreth is a studio perfectionist, but his much-chewed-over Yale education and obsessive intricacy never feel dry or canned on stage. The interlocking voices of Amber Coffman, Haley Dekle, and Olga Bell represent the Dirty Projectors’ central instrument, and on latter-day albums the women have taken lead on more and more songs. Longstreth is a man visibly in his own head, the maestro listening to each phrase and adjusting as he goes. He can also work a crowd, and his group’s live act offers all the effervescent pleasures of a collectivist ensemble. This is no small thing for an auteur-rocker. Just ask David Byrne.
Like a brown-bag bottle of whiskey after a champagne cocktail, the National took the stage to deliver dirges of varying degrees of slyness. Bryan Devendorf’s excellent work on drums, often labeled “polyrhythmic” (another much-misused term), buoys the band on songs that would otherwise collapse in self-pitying cacophony. At his best, Devendorf anchors those slow-build anthems that get people all hot about the National in the first place. Fans like to credit singer-lyricist Matt Berninger with self-parodic lyrics that counter the band’s otherwise very-emo vibe. But Berninger’s voice is very hard to understand in concert, his baritone low in the mix and shrouded in a sort of would-be Leonard Cohen reticence.
Berninger’s banter with the audience, on the other hand, was loose and warm last night: he thanked Raleigh Denim for selling him jeans so tight they made his voice crack, and he dedicated “Fake Empire” to “grandpa’s dick.” During the guitar breakdown to one song, he hurled a large Styrofoam cup over his shoulder, dousing the front rows in red wine. It was an accident, he swore, and perhaps the only real surprise he offered all night. On “Pink Rabbits,” from this year’s Trouble Will Find Me, Berninger sings: “I was a television version of a person with a broken heart.” That’s a joke at his own expense, but if he’s so knowing—well, why can’t he do something about it?