The last time the National performed locally in a venue as spacious and filled with echoes as Roy Wilkins Auditorium was in 2008, when it opened for R.E.M. at the neighboring Xcel Energy Center — where it pretty well got lost in the vast surroundings.
A half-decade later, the Cincinnati-bred, New York-based sulk-rock quintet has become an R.E.M. of sorts for a new generation, with a poetic but mumbly-voiced singer, arty yet vaguely Americana-based arrangements and a growing repertoire of critically acclaimed albums. Before Tuesday night's concert at the Roy, however, the question remained whether or not the National was ready to conquer a cavernous venue.
The last of three bands to hit Wilkins Auditorium this past week on their way to or from last weekend's Lollapalooza festival in Chicago, the National uncharacteristically had the biggest, brightest stage production of the bunch — which is saying something after the Killers' dimly flashy set.
A giant video screen filled the back of the National's stage with a nonstop montage of arty, Terrence Malick-style dreamscape footage while the band played inside a box-shaped lighting rig wrapped around the stage. Pretty impressive stuff, actually.
The hi-fi staging was hardly the reason the National proved ready and able to tackle the bigger hall, though. With jubilant two-piece horn accompaniment, more of an ornately orchestrated, piano-laced sound and a masterful pacing of musical peaks and valleys, the band itself loomed larger and brighter. Extremely impressive, actually.
The first half of Tuesday's two-hour set was stacked with songs off the group's more languid and balladic album, "Trouble Will Find Me," which could've been trouble in and of itself — and presented a special challenge in the acoustically abysmal Wilkins. The sound was tweaked relatively decently on Tuesday, though. At least, you could make out singer Matt Berninger's words most of the time.
Among the new tunes, "I Should Live in Salt" opened with a compellingly anthemic, almost U2-ish swagger, and "Don't Swallow the Cap" followed with a brightening appearance by local singer Nona Marie of Dark Dark Dark (who also sang on the new album). Deeper in, several of the new songs sounded stormier and more climactic than on record, including "Demons" and especially "Graceless," with a wicked, Sonic Youth-like guitar meltdown. Conversely, "Pink Rabbits" provided the show's quietest and bluest moment, with Berninger sounding like Bowie at his most crooner-like.
Peppered between those tunes, older favorites such as "Bloodbuzz Ohio," "Squalor Victoria," the murderous "Abel" and the pre-encore finale "Fake Empire" gave the 3,500 fans plan plenty of chances for visceral, emotionally racked singalongs.
The show turned downright magical in the encore, as Berninger meandered all the way to the back of the auditorium to howl out "Mr. November" deep in the crowd without dropping his microphone. Ironically, he then put his mike aside and stood at the front of the stage with his bandmates for a truly unplugged rendition of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks." Even the Wilkins' acoustics couldn't soften the goose bumps in this case.
Monday's opening band Daughter was in much the same boat that the National faced next door in 2008. The hard-brooding, mellow British band, led by siren-voiced songstress Elena Tonra, played to a half-empty crowd (the rest was waiting out the storm), and thus its droning, down-tuned tunes echoed feebly through the venue. Check back in five years, though.