The National took the stage behind Dylan's "Man in Me" (featured in The Big Lebowski). When Dylan rounded the end of the first chorus, lead singer Matt Berninger and the rest of the National, replete with masterful horn section, slid into the quiet opening of "Start a War" from 2007's The Boxer. As the song hurtled toward climax, the crowd stood awe-struck and forgot about their $10 Bud Lights. The double tap drums of "Anyone's Ghost" started amidst settling guitar buzz before Berninger bled his baritone into the microphone for a casual hello.
The National rolled through "Brainy," and into "Blood Buzz Ohio," which sent the audience spiraling into a state of hand-raised ecstasy, as the post-punk revival sound of bewitching guitar and syncopated drums set a dark tone. Berninger offered a crazy anecdote about a toe injury caused by a kitten and an orangutan that had a fight in his bus bunk.
"I'm Afraid of Everyone," "Apartment Story," and "Abel" were delivered with nigh perfect fidelity, ear-popping extended jams and gorgeous tonal accents. On "England," Berninger descended into the crowd and traversed general admission and up into the seats, all the while not missing a single word. A comically long microphone cable trailed behind him that nearly clothes-lined many attendees, who worked to feed the chord over the heads of their fellow fans. Berninger returned to the stage and finished with delightfully subdued versions of "Fake Empire" and "Terrible Love."
Next, Montreal's Arcade Fire, who have not rocked St. Louis since they opened for the Unicorns at the now defunct Rocket Bar, kicked off with a raucously, passionate rendition of "Ready to Start." Régine Chassagne banged on a second drum set positioned next to tattooed drummer Jeremy Gara. The song's orchestral scope mingled with baroque images of suburban life displayed on two giant screens placed behind the stage.
During "Rebellion (Lies)," the crowd shouted, "Lies! Lies!" over a powerful and multifaceted chorus. William Butler, brother of lead-man Win Butler, marched the length of the stage furiously beating a drum tom. "Empty Room," and "Rococo" offered a perfect balance of amped-up energy and casual grace. Chrome and sepia footage of the band layered over images of forlorn suburbia bridged the arena gap between crowd and band.
After the song, Win Butler officially said hello to the wobbly-kneed crowd, and told no one to inform Berninger that the National should be headlining their own tour. On "The Suburbs" Butler worked the piano, delivering the song's dulcet keys with finesse and precision. During "Intervention," cathedrals and candles wavered across the screens as the crowd sang along with Butler: "Working for the church while your family dies." Butler told the crowd he is still getting used to the "whole arena rock thing, but shit, a room is a room," and charged into a wonderfully brain-addling version of "No Cars Go." The dual violins sang out, backing the song in an orchestral eddy.
Chassagne descended to center stage and sang "Haiti" before images of swaying palm trees. Butler screamed the final lines of "We Used to Wait" into the faces of the front row attendees with passion rarely seen in arena rock. "Keep the Car Running," "Neighborhood (Tunnels)," and "Wake Up" rounded out the main portion of the set.
Arcade Fire encored with "Month of May," which pulsed with punk-rock power. On "Neighborhood (Power Out)" the "Oohs, oohs" of the chorus stood crystalline and rich. The encore concluded with "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)." Chassagne danced around the stage with a pair of rainbow streamers waving in each hand as she sang with unbridled power, yet measured temperance.
Make no mistake, Grammy or no Grammy, the National and Arcade Fire proved artful, indie rock holds a place in the arena. Fans streamed out into the rain with smiles pasted on their faces -- proof that both performances bridged the gap between band and audience with ease and elegance, which is no simple feat.