The National began its show Thursday at the Paramount with a little bit of show-business artifice; a video camera followed the band from its dressing room, down a staircase, and onto the stage, all to a soundtrack of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.”
Pop bands trying to whip teen audiences into a frenzy usually do this kind of pre-show video tease, and it is not something typical from a sophisticated Americana group like the National. On Thursday, the goal seemed to be to suggest that the men onstage were the same as the men offstage — everymen, if you will, with no barrier from fame. As they began with “I Should Live in Salt,” the most melancholy start you could imagine to any rock show, the vibe was set.
The rest of the concert — the first of two at Seattle’s Paramount — followed in that vein, with straightforward presentations of dark and moody songs culled from the group’s 14-year career. Though The National is often compared to Wilco, its sophisticated song structure, which is at moments orchestral, shares more with Radiohead.
After “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” from the 2010 commercial breakthrough “High Violet,” lead singer Matt Berninger said he was suffering from a cold. That may have made his baritone even deeper, which moved it away from pop, and into art rock.
Berninger rarely spoke, perhaps because of his cold, but he did joke at one point, “This is sound check, isn’t it?” The mix was wrong, though, for the Paramount, with boomy bass that overwhelmed the nuances of Aaron Dessner’s guitar.
This kind of mistake happens often when a band has been on the road headlining festivals, as the National has been, and then moves indoors and misreads the hall. It did seem to get fixed halfway through, but it made the start of the show feel less connected than it should have been.
The National did play a generous 25-song set, and it seemed to get better as the night went on. One of the band’s strengths is its wonderful use of horns — trombone and trumpet — and this was particularly sweet on “This is the Last Time.” The two-person horn section was a perfect counterpoint for Berninger’s voice, the dark and the light.
The band encored with “Learning,” a Perfume Genius cover, and three other songs, and by then musicians and crowd were on fire. Then they walked offstage, everymen assimilating back into the crowd once more.
Charles R. Cross is a Seattle-based writer who has authored nine books, including the bestselling biography of Kurt Cobain, “Heavier Than Heaven.” On Twitter @Charlesrcross, email@example.com, or at charlesrcross.com.