Here’s a brain teaser: Most days, my commute to my downtown day job consists of a bumpy bus ride straight down Olympic. When I have a good book to read, however, I’ll get off at Western and head up to its intersection with Wilshire, then ride the rest of the way downtown on the subway. There’s a gigantic theater across from the Metro stop called the “Wiltern.” If you can figure out why it’s called the Wiltern faster than I did, you’re officially smarter than me. You’ve got three months. Ready? Go!

When the National first came to L.A., they played a show at the much smaller Troubadour, a rat’s nest right on the border of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. I was lazy about buying tickets; consequently, it sold out and I missed it. Since I’d never been to the Wiltern before, this was a perfect opportunity. I wasn’t disappointed. At a show that didn’t even sell out, where I chanced to meet someone in line who had never even heard of the band she was about to see, I wound up being blown away.

This year, the Wiltern is celebrating its 75th anniversary. It’s got the same “old L.A.” atmosphere that places like Union Station still evoke — so elaborate and well-preserved that it makes you marvel that such places were ever built in the first place, and even more so that they exist in a concrete wonderland such as Los Angeles. The exterior is the same shade of aquamarine grey as the Statue of Liberty. The interior, doubtless courtesy of recent renovations, feels much like a classy movie theater, like the Cinerama in Seattle.

One minor irritation that subtracted from the experience was the projection screen above the stage, lowered during dead time, displaying relentless ads for Verizon (or some other wireless carrier) including the opportunity to send text messages for realtime display. I have to assume the messages are screened somehow, because “Dude, this concert roxxx” showed up at least four times before the music had even started, while “Fuck Verizon” was seen nary a once. Fortunately, the screen disappeared into the rafters during performances.

Since I try to avoid watching MTV’s ongoing attempts to glorify teenage girls with rich parents, I don’t have much occasion to criticize a girl on her sixteenth birthday. It seems like kind of a rotten thing to do. But if Annie Clark, trading as “St. Vincent,” had stopped playing after her first two songs, I probably would have gone ahead and done it anyway. Her first song was an off-rhythm mess, and her second featured a backline of lilting “bum-bum-bum”s that wore out its welcome after about eight seconds. My concert companion, Verlaine, read my mind when she asked, “How much longer is this going to go on?”

It turns out that Annie Clark is actually well over 20, so I guess I’m free to criticize all I want. But beyond the first two songs, there was no longer any need. There’s something wild-haired and untamed about St. Vincent that says “I want to be PJ Harvey when I grow up.” My favorite song was an assassination ballad in the grand Poe tradition, which featured the delightful epigram “…and if you ask me, I’m sure he had it coming.” I can’t say I’d be particularly eager to see her again, but she kept the crowd happy, and it’s always impressive to see someone produce at least four different instruments’ worth of music at a time.

St. Vincent – Now Now

Matt Beringer, the lead singer for The National, takes up a lot of space on stage. He’s no Henry Rollins or Stephen Jackson (of the Pietasters), but he’s tall and he has a very *big* voice that projects well. I can only imagine how cramped the stage would have seemed at the Troubadour; here at the Wiltern, everyone had plenty of space. Framed by a silver backdrop and well-choreographed lighting, The National looked every bit as professional as they sounded.

One of my primary complaints about concerts is that at such high volumes, the music often degenerates into nothing more than an exercise in percussion. Drums thump, guitars jang, and singers bark. And even last night, the sound was a bit much for my tender and uncottoned ears (after the show I had trouble sleeping because they were still ringing). But what made the National show so memorable was how wonderfully balanced everything was. I could hear each instrument, the texture and complexity of the music was apparent, and if I didn’t have the listening comprehension skills of an ether overdose victim, I probably would have been able to understand the lyrics.

While every band member delivered, it should be clear that the show was stolen by the violin player, whose name I was unable to catch. He reminded me a bit of David Herman (who played the character Michael Bolton in Office Space). As someone who spent the summer of 1995 in Northern Virginia (a year when a certain band exploded out of Charlottesville, onto WHFS, and subsequently into every other nook and cranny of listening space in the known universe), I’ve never been a big fan of the fiddle. Prior to last night, I probably would have told you that the best way to put a violin to use in a rock and roll concert would be to smash it over Dave Matthews’ head. But this guy was magnificent, sawing away so fiercely during “Fake Empire” I felt certain he’d break a string, or at least start stripping horsehair away from the bow.

I didn’t keep a setlist, but I do remember that they opened with “Start a War.” “Secret Meeting” was played shortly thereafter, as well as the group’s anthem, “Abel,” from one of their earlier releases. They also included “All the Wine” and “Mr. November,” “Apartment Story,” and of course, “Fake Empire” (the first of their songs I heard, courtesy of KEXP). The highly encouraged encore featured St. Vincent adding her voice to the backup vocals, and the band responded by providing her with a birthday cake, candles and all.

If you get a chance (which it appears you won’t for at least a little while, unless you live in Brooklyn or overseas), definitely go see this band. Their show at the Wiltern was, hands down, the best concert I attended during all of 2007.

The National – All the Wine

The National – Fake Empire

The National – Mistaken for Strangers