At the bottom of the tickets to the Santa Barbara Bowl are the words, "Rain or shine." We can usually expect the latter, especially when the area is in the midst of an extended drought. However, on Friday night while The National played the song "Slow Show," the heavens opened up and rain poured onto the audience, which responded with a huge roar.
In fact, this burst of rain was what boosted the show from being good to great, at least for those who stuck it out.
Of course, rain seems fitting for The National, whose songs have such themes as sadness, regret, disillusionment, anxiety and lost love.
The rain didn't amount to much in the drought-busting department, but you have to admit that it complemented the music quite effectively.
The National's set kicked off with a pair of songs from their latest album, Trouble Will Find Me, which featured heavily in the setlist, particularly in the light rain portion. But for me, early show highlights came from their older material, including "Afraid of Everyone" with an ominous giant eye on the screen behind the stage, "Squalor Victoria," which built up in intensity and led singer Matt Berninger to acknowledge that "I overdid it on that one," and "Abel," during which the rain started to pick up.
The rain during "Slow Song" got everyone in the seated section up on their feet, and this seemed to energize the band, who stepped it up on "Pink Rabbits" and "England," songs that were in sync with the weather. These were followed by "Graceless," for which Berninger wandered over beyond the edge of the stage area, and "Fake Empire."
At the beginning of the encore, Berninger jokingly asked, "How many people have pneumonia?" This mini-set included "Terrible Love," which had Berninger walking through the adoring audience and into the seated area, all while tethered to the stage via the microphone cord — it might be time to invest in a wireless microphone set, methinks. The show ended with "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," with acoustic guitar accompaniment and the crowd taking over the vocals en masse — a magical moment.
The evening began with the more sonically diverse indie rockers Portugal. The Man, who ventured into noise freak-outs, proggish instrumentals and bits that would've fit into the 1970s glam rock world. The songs were propelled by Zachary Carothers' bass guitar, which reminded me of the musician's adage that you never have to tell a bass player to turn up his amp.
The highlight of their set was when their warped cover of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2" morphed into their recent minor hit "Purple Yellow Red and Blue." These guys really rocked, and deserved more attention from the chatty crowd.
Rain or shine, I expect that The National and Portugal. The Man would've put on a wonderful show. But this time, we were lucky to have the rain.
Setlist for Portugal. The Man
All Your Light (Times Like These)
Hip Hop Kids
Creep in a T-Shirt
Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 / Purple Yellow Red and Blue
Setlist for The National
Don't Swallow the Cap
I Should Live in Salt
Mistaken for Strangers
Sea of Love
Hard to Find
Afraid of Everyone
I Need My Girl
This Is the Last Time
All the Wine
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.