Concert Review: The National and The Breeders on Fountain Square

Photo by Joe Lamb - View a gallery of images from the event here.

It’s a great time of year to live in a swing state like Ohio. At least if you’re a music fan. Last night, popular Ohio-affiliated bands The National and The Breeders played a free rally/concert for Barack Obama and packed Fountain Square front to back. Tonight, in Akron, Devo, The Black Keys and Chrisse Hynde are doing an Obama concert (cleverly dubbed “Duty Now for the Future”). And this coming Thursday, The Beastie Boys headline a “Get Out and Vote” concert at Dayton’s Hara Arena, with guests Ben Harper and Sheryl Crow.

I don’t know if I’ve just tuned it out this year, but there seems to be a lot less of that "shut up and sing” sentiment in the 2008 election cycle. I’ll credit the Dixie Chicks, the Pop Country band that lost a large chunk of its fanbase and was virtually crucified for daring to criticize the President. A film about their experience with crazed, angry former fans (and their successful rebound), Shut Up and Dance, perhaps provided enough embarrassment that the public has backed off of those damn “activist artists.”

Or maybe the “shut up and sing” crowd has backed away because, as always, artists were right in their demand for regime change four years ago.—-

Watching The National on stage last night, I thought a lot about the whys and hows of the event. Given what has happened to this country in the past eight years, it seems only human for anyone — an artist, a teacher, a factory worker, yes, even a Joe the plumber — to feel an urgent need to do whatever possible to help make a change.

The Cincinnati natives of The National no doubt realized they could draw a few thousand people to Fountain Square with their music. The event also featured shuttle busses that took registered voters to the Board of Elections to vote early. Besides slightly lessening long lines on election day, the shuttle busses offered everyone involved in the event real-time proof that they made a difference. Votes were cast last night. And those votes were for Obama.

The National — and The Breeders and all of the volunteers and speakers — should feel good about themselves today. And even better about themselves on Nov. 5.

There is usually a “preaching to the choir” element to these types of events. Artists with truly broad fanbases, like Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M. and Pearl Jam (all of whom did pro-Kerry shows in ’04), probably stand the best chance of “converting” voters. But with the relatively smaller bands that played Fountain Square, and given that the event was blatantly partisan, I don’t know that there was one McCain voter there that changed his or her mind. Maybe an undecided voter or two heard the passionate speeches from the many political speakers (like Mark Mallory, Roxanne Qualls, Steve Driehaus and, uh, Natalie Portman) and made his or her mind up. Or, more likely, maybe they headed to the beer line.

The Breeders started around 5:15 p.m. for a crowd that grew throughout the set. The Dayton band has been together almost four times as long as singer/guitarist Kim Deal’s other little band, The Pixies (in their first incarnation), and they’ve also seen almost as many lineup changes as their fellow Daytonites, Guided By Voices. Sisters Kim and Kelley Deal were their usual adorably playful selves on stage, joking throughout and mostly limiting their political banter to simple pleas — “Vote” (as in “This is a fast one … and vote!”).

I could listen to Kim and Kelley sing all day; their Kewpie doll voices give me chills when they harmonize. The set was casual, with the sisters talking about what to play next and often being self-depreciating (especially Kelley). There were some especially sloppy moments — “guitar solos” in Breedersworld are always seat-of-the-pants, deteriorating into a jumbled, stumbly mess or gloriously strutting like a hot drunk chick trying to dance with 8-inch heels on.

But even though it was a little slipshod at times, there is something incredibly charming about the way the Deals approach a show. It feels like you’re hanging out in the basement with some musician pals who happen to have great senses of humor and wonderful tastes in music. In other words, it’s kind of like living in Dayton.

The Breeders’ set drew from their almost 20-year history, including early songs like the encore, “Safari,” and more recent tracks from their hit-or-miss new album. Kim whipped out the distorted mic for a soaring, noisy version of the band’s biggest hit, “Cannonball,” and they did  their smoking cover of The Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” as well as songs by Dayton bands The Tasties and Guided By Voices.

By the time the band finished their set, the Square was about 3/4 full.

During the hour or so gap between bands, the crowd — a mixed bunch, age-wise, though not many African Americans showed up — showed that the music was clearly why they showed up. Not that they didn’t support the cause — anytime Bush was bashed or Obama was lauded, the crowd erupted in applause — but the constant begging for everyone to “get on the bus” to go vote grew tiresome for some. (Personally, my distrust of the voting system in general is keeping me from voting early; perhaps it’s not justified, but I fear “early voting” ballots will be found in a couple of years sitting in the basement of the Board of Elections.)

Steve Driehaus threw out some cups with his name on it — for beer drinking, presumably. I yelled, "Fill those cups with beer and you got my vote, Steve" (well, I yelled it in my head anyway). I was hoping one of the cups would put my eye out so I could get me one of those liberal, activist trial lawyers to sue his pants off. Alas, I was only grazed.

The Jumbotron overlooking Fountain Square — which broadcast shots of the bands, speakers and crowd — showed some extended versions of a few Obama and “get out and vote” ads between musical performances. The best was an “uncensored” version of the sarcastic “Don’t Vote” commercials, featuring a slew of celebrities cracking wise. Some of the celebrities said “Fuck” a lot in the commercials. I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be standing on the heart of the city of Cincinnati and listening to the word “Fuck” echoing between the buildings. Si Leis is probably jacking off right now just thinking about arresting everyone involved.

The announcement that actress Natalie Portman was going to speak at the rally helped garner the show a little more media attention. A friend came up to me and said, “So Amidala is endorsing Obama!” I looked at him blankly, thinking this Amidala person was some Republican big wig or something. I stopped watching Star Wars movies when I was 12.

Ms. Portman — who told the audience she felt very Ohio because her Grandma lives here and her folks were married here — gave a very short spiel about how important the election is and then introduced The National. I was wondering whether there would be a mass exodus when Portman left the stage — would people actually go to the rally just to see Natalie Portman talk for five minutes? — but it soon became clear that The National were the main draw.

The National’s Cincinnati area shows always feel special, “conquering heroes returning home” and all that good stuff. The band members always seem especially jovial, with friends and family scattered throughout the audience. When I saw the band at the 20th Century Theatre last year, singer Matt Berninger drank a bottle of booze throughout their set, resulting in a finale that resembled the end of a Replacements set circa 1985. Last night, Berninger stuck to coffee (with maybe a little whiskey, he hinted). Who needed booze. The positive vibe in the air was enough to get high.

Berninger and the Dessner twins (Bryce and Aaron) were lighthearted throughout, joking around between songs and not getting too heavy handed with their political talk. I guess that’s what a seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls for Obama will do.

The band played for about an hour and a half, performing much of their last couple of albums, including the amazing most recent effort, Boxer. The Square was filled and I was surprised to see that so many people seemed familiar with the band, who are huge in the Indie Rock world right now, something that doesn’t usually translate to mainstream recognition, especially in Cincinnati. There also seemed to be quite a few curiosity seekers. I’m sure they made a few new fans. And I’m sure others just didn’t get it. The National’s music is moody, often pretty dark and fairly cerebral. Not exactly jump up and down music (though tere are a couple of those kind of songs).

Still, the bulk of the audience stayed around until the final note (or was that a tom drum) rang out.

While the songs “Fake Empire” and “Mr. November” don’t appear to be political, they can certainly be re-construed that way, which is probably why the band ended their set with them. It was a wildly effective double punch.

An instrumental version of “Fake Empire,” which is built around a supple, rolling piano figure, was used in an Obama campaign video. The song — which can be seen as a reference to W. Inc. — rose to a noisy cacophony as I imagined it as the soundtrack to the current “fake empire” crumbling.

The finale of “Mr. November” (the last song of the regular set; they did an encore) was all I imagined it would be. The song is the band’s most “rockin’,” with Berninger eschewing his down-low, low-down croon for something more rousing and shout-y.

“Mr. November” has some obvious Obama tie-ins; the name alone inspired the band to make T-shirts with Obama’s image and the phrase beneath it. As the band hit the cloud-bursting choruses, the crowd at the Fountain seemed to lift off the ground a half-inch. It was an inspired concert moment.

The whole event, in fact, was very inspiring, even if you couldn’t give two shits about the politics of it. Fountain Square itself was a star of the show. The organizers installed a large stage on Fifth St., facing the Fountain, as well as a kick-ass sound system. It would be amazing if the Fountain could host concerts of this size a few times a year. It’s actually a great place to see a show. What a great venue for MidPoint next year! (Hint, hint!)

I’ve lived in Cincinnati all my life and Downtown has always been a bit of a ghost town after 6 p.m., so I was also inspired to see our city so alive in the evening. But, mostly, I was inspired by the moment. If things go as they appear to be going in the election, this is a special time in American history. And when I look back in 50 years and remember when America finally elected its first “minority” President and turned the corner, I will no doubt remember The National and the way Cincinnati showed up to support the right candidate at the right time.

I still don’t know if music can change the world. But it never ceases to change mine.

— Mike Breen

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