Bowling with Neko Case and The National

We celebrated Kenley’s birthday earlier this month at the Hollywood Bowl watching Neko Case and The National, two artists on steady rotation on Kenley’s iTunes playlist.

Going to a show at the Hollywood Bowl is one of those experiences that makes you love living in Los Angeles.

The venue is nestled at the base of the Hollywood Hills, just blocks away from touristy Hollywood Boulevard and its bustling Walk of Fame and Kodak Theatre. But once inside the amphitheater, the blaring billboards and traffic congestion seem far away. You are surrounded by green hills. Depending on where you are sitting, you might be able to glimpse the first few letters of the famous “Hollywood” sign, the only true reminder that you are still in L.A.

The Hollywood Bowl is one of the largest amphitheaters in the U.S. and has been ranked the No. 1 outdoor venue by Pollstar seven years in a row.

Part of the Hollywood Bowl experience includes packing a picnic dinner and drinking wine. Many people (including us) arrived with insulated bags from Trader Joe’s on their shoulders that were filled with cheese, crackers, fruit and wine. The VIP sections in the front rows have tables for more formal dining, and restaurants such as Thomas Keller’s Bouchon advertise their Hollywood Bowl picnic baskets.

It must be a bit strange for musicians — especially those who usually play in dark clubs — to perform while the audience is eating. Both Neko Case and the lead singer of The National commented about being able to smell fried chicken. In the cheap seats where we were, it smelled more like pot.

The weather was perfect. After the sun went down it felt like fall, and I was glad I had brought along my leather jacket. The moon was full, for added drama.

The American flag and the California state flag flew at half-staff on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and though it was mentioned only twice, you could sense that everyone, including the musicians, were aware of the day’s significance.

Sharon Van Etten opened the show. She’s a favorite of Los Angeles public radio station KCRW, which sponsored the concert as part of its World Music Festival series. If you haven’t listened to her, you should. Kenley says she has an “Aimee Mann thing” going on.

Jason Bentley — host of KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” (one of the last truly great terrestrial radio programs, Kenley says) — acknowledged 9/11 when he introduced headliners Neko Case and The National, saying music brings us together and helps us move forward. (You can listen to “Morning Becomes Eclectic” online here.)

Kenley and I had seen Neko Case when she sang backup for Jakob Dylan at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., a couple of years ago. So we were both excited to see her play guitar and sing her own songs, which are folksy and haunting.

She invited T. Bone Burnett (known for writing and producing songs for movies, including “Crazy Heart,” “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?” and “The Big Lebowski”) on stage to play guitar for the last part of her set. One of the highlights was her song “Hold On, Hold On.”

The National’s most recent album, “High Violet,” is one of those records you listen to over and over again, and it continues to grow on you rather than becoming annoying. Lead singer Matt Berninger has an intense, deep voice (think Nick Cave), as well as beautiful, moody lyrics, such as the following from “Bloodbuzz Ohio”:

Stand up straight at the foot of your love, I
Lift my shirt up.
Stand up straight at the foot of your love, I
Lift my shirt up.

I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees.
I never married, but Ohio don’t remember me

Lay my head on the hood of your car, I
Take it too far.
Lay my head on the hood of your car, I
Take it too far.

I still owe money to the money to the money I owe.
I never thought about love when I thought about home.
I still owe money to the money to the money I owe.
The floors are falling out from everybody I know.

I’m on a bloodbuzz, yes I am.
I’m on a bloodbuzz.
I’m on a bloodbuzz. God, I am.
I’m on a bloodbuzz . . .

Their live show was more dynamic than I expected, and the strong performance at the large outdoor venue had critics comparing them to REM and U2.

Berninger acknowledged the 9/11 anniversary when he played “Thirsty,” which he said he wrote a month after the attacks:

As far as I can tell,
I’m nothing like a princess.
But today I find myself
Curling up behind the house.

There’s nothing in the air today.
Now I know I’m not so important . . .

What had been a beautiful but fairly reserved evening (Neko Case at one point told the audience we didn’t have to be so polite) turned into a true rock ‘n’ roll show when Berninger defiantly held up a large digital clock that was counting down the remaining minutes the band had to finish the show. (As Kenley says, it’s over when I say so.)

Berninger then stomped across the dining tables in the VIP section and as far into the now-standing crowd as the microphone cable would let him, for one of the last songs of the night.

Kenley said the show at the Hollywood Bowl was one his favorite things he’s done so far in Los Angeles, which is perfect since the tickets were his birthday present. I’m looking forward to going back next season.

Read reviews of the show from the Los Angeles Times, The L.A. Weekly and The Hollywood Reporter.

A self-portrait of Kenley and me was posted on the Hollywood Bowl website.


2 thoughts on “Bowling with Neko Case and The National

  1. Shell, you really made Kenley’s 32nd b’day special; thanks! Maybe we should put the Hollywood Bowl on our list of places to go next time we’re in LA–sounds like it might give the Observatory some competition, though Colin would disagree; he still raves about the Observatory.

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