Saturday evening Basilica Hudson transformed into a living, breathing artscape for the second night of The National’s Guilty Party–an album release that doubled as a fundraiser for Basilica Hudson. Basilica’s industrial landscape, rust and wood textures, factory windows and location, only steps from the railroad tracks and feet from the Hudson River, make it one of the best places to see a show–full stop. A banh mi vendor and halal cart provided the food, multiple bars overflowing with wine and sake provided the libations.
Multiple stages rose up in the four corners of the venue with the mainstage a circle surrounded by a track for a film dolly. The concept being to have a collection of artists play brief sets on various stages to build towards The National’s performance–only to later join them during their performance. In theory all of this was an amazing dream–the sake, the food, the venue itself, the artists, the summer breeze and the sunset. But it wasn’t exactly a dream come true.
The National are a band with a fragile sound, built mostly on atmosphere, deft production, the insistent drumming of Bryan Devendorf and the nostalgic, heart-string pulling, anxiety-tinged baritone of lead singer Matt Berninger. Hailed as the natural inheritors of REM’s legacy, the Cincinnati-founded, Brooklyn-based outfit has built their fanbase incrementally with each successive release.
What was confounding about their performance on Saturday night was the complexity of their arrangements, the vast array of tools at their disposal and the thin and simply adequate approximation of their recorded work. Yes, the band was working with new material from their forthcoming album Sleep Well Beast, but even standards from early releases like ”Mr. November” from 2005’s Alligator and “Apartment Story” from 2007’s The Boxer felt oddly thin. Berninger at times seemed like a drowning man swept up in the flash flood of an overly instrumented band, his voice peaking over the top of the water briefly only to crack and disappear under the waves of sound.
The band had their moments on tracks that either called for them to slow down like on “Wasp Nest” or to speedup like on “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” but they would eventually get lost in the muddle when they returned to their default, “moderate rock” position.
It was nice to have a piano, keyboard, cellist, violinist, computer workstation, electronic drum triggers, two guitarists, a bassist, drummer and singer there to aid in the delivery of The National’s tunes but it also didn’t feel necessary, or like the band I’m familiar with. It felt like a contradiction of the band’s essence–simple, stripped down, simmering and atmospheric.
I positioned myself throughout the venue in an attempt to convince myself I was in a bad spot but to no avail. It may just be that The National ran up against a space that calls for something more bombastic and direct.
Openers Buke & Gase were easily more compelling with their homemade instruments and lead singer Arone Dyer’s Bjork-like vocal delivery. The pair in their corner felt vital, immediate and certain–in stark contrast to the haze of The National’s performance that followed.
There’s no denying that the night was magical and enchanting, but Basilica the venue was the breakout star.
Photos by author and Lecco Morris