On an exceptionally chilly Monday night on the Near West Side of Chicago, a few hundred people gathered at House of Vans for a remarkably intimate set from The National. The band had flown into town from Europe for a special performance at the Obama Foundation Summit, but arrived a couple days early to give fans an extra special treat. Tickets to the show were being given out for free through an online lottery, and considering the 500 person capacity of the venue, it’s safe to assume that a lot more people entered than actually won. Those with luck on their side were treated to an engrossing and often aggressive performance that skewed towards the dark and political.

Overall you could say it was a slightly atypical night for the band, as they took advantage of the unique setting and circumstances to dive deep into material off their recent album Sleep Well Beast and challenge expectations. That was both a good thing and a bad thing. Good because, like the new record itself, it serves to shake the audience out of their complacency and encourage self-reflection. Bad because it was done at the expense of hits and fan service. In an ideal world, they’d be able to balance both with deft confidence, and recent set lists indicate they’re doing just that.

But that version of The National didn’t quite show up at House of Vans on Monday night, and a glance at the paper set list affixed to the stage confirms they skipped over a few classic songs in favor of newer material. Whether they were cut due to time constraints or simply because the band didn’t feel like playing them, it’s unclear. At one point Matt Berninger made it a point to mention that they were supposed to play “Fake Empire,” but thought it “didn’t quite feel right” so they chose not to play it. Not acknowledged at all was the omission of one of my personal favorite National songs “Apartment Story,” which also appeared on their intended set list. In short, the Boxer album got the shaft. And in the year of its 10th anniversary, too.

Of the 13 songs The National performed over the course of a little more than an hour, seven were from Sleep Well Beast. There’s nothing wrong with that, particularly as it’s expected that a band will always lean heaviest into their new material. I’m just not used to the new songs yet, and neither was most of the crowd it seemed, as the overall enthusiasm in the room appeared to be a little off – especially when you consider the intimate nature of the show.

You might expect thing to be a little upbeat too, because it was actually a positive news day in which some former Trump advisors were indicted. Politics were top of mind for much of the show. Berninger mentioned that “Walk It Back” was inspired at least in part by a quote from Karl Rove. “Guilty Party” received a special dedication to Paul Manafort, one of the aforementioned people facing indictment. And the visceral “Turtleneck” was written as a response to Donald Trump’s election. Actually, given how many songs were focused on depressing topics, maybe a lack of enthusiasm from the crowd was perfectly aligned with what was being played.

The more classic mid-set hit parade threesome of “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “I Need My Girl” perked things up a bit, and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry (in town for a show at United Center later that night) even stopped by for a guest appearance on guitar for “Bloodbuzz” that was very well received. As he does at the end of pretty much every show, Berninger took off into the crowd with his exceptionally long microphone cord and screamed his head off throughout “Mr. November”. Considering the size of House of Vans, he was able to make it all the way to the back of the venue, up some stairs and into a tiny balcony area before turning around. Kudos for fully exploring the space too, and giving the crowds off to the sides a bit of a thrill.

The encore included a rarity in the form of “Wasp Nest” from 2004’s Cherry Tree EP, which was a genuine surprise and delight to hear. It’s not the most intense or exciting National track, but certainly one of the better written songs in their catalog. Transitioning from that into “Carin at the Liquor Store” was remarkably inspired, as the two feel like natural cousins despite being released more than a decade apart from one another. Last, but certainly not least, The National ended the night with a fiery cover of The Ramones classic “The KKK Took My Baby Away”. Berninger once again waded into the crowd and got everybody all riled up as he shouted his way through the song. As the old adage goes, exit on a high note and leave them wanting more.

While I feel like overall my comments on the show might come across a bit more negative than intended, the fact remains that this was probably my least favorite performance from The National among the half dozen I’ve seen over the last decade. Reasonably speaking, I shouldn’t complain. After all, it was a free show, with free drinks, at an uncharacteristically intimate venue. Most people would kill to see a band as great as The National in a situation like that. It certainly piqued my interest. And for the record, this wasn’t a bad performance from The National, just a bit less-great than usual. Blame it on the somewhat humdrum and condensed set list, or the fact that they’d flown in from Europe for this and were probably jet lagged / worn down. I’d like to think that most of the crowd walked away satisfied, content at the very least that they got to spend an hour with a great band like The National. That’s the way I’m choosing to look at it too, with the hope that when I see them again for a full performance next month at the considerably larger Civic Opera House, they’ll be bringing their A-game.

Set List
Nobody Else Will Be There
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
Walk It Back
Guilty Party
Don’t Swallow the Cap
Bloodbuzz Ohio (ft. Richard Reed Parry)
I Need My Girl
Day I Die
Mr. November
Wasp Nest
Carin at the Liquor Store
The KKK Took My Baby Away (The Ramones cover)

Buy Sleep Well Beast from Amazon