September 10th, 2010
Matt Berninger is in a playful mood. Front-man of The National, he stands behind his microphone between songs, calmly grinning at the crowd as they hurl their affection in his direction. A girl screams she loves him and Berninger makes a gun with his fingers, blowing her away with a wink. “Oh, you too,” he fires back. If any part of this man is ill at ease, he’s not showing it.
Rewind 90 seconds.
Berninger, his voice raw from screaming, retreats from the spotlight. As the song they’re playing hits its climactic crescendo, he manically paces the stage in darkness — from the drum-kit, over to the brass section, to the man playing viola, back to the drum-kit. He sinks his head into the wall of sound and, like an orchestral conductor, begins gesturing wildly, demanding more. When it’s over, he looks around for a drink of water, having violently thrown his cup to the ground at song’s start.
And back to the playful calm. Too tall to be meek, he bashfully soaks in the applause. Gone is the man who screamed himself hoarse, but he’s still buried in there somewhere. This contrast goes beyond Berninger’s stage behaviour — it’s a microcosm of the band itself.
Berninger is not a great singer, at least not in the traditional sense. His range is limited and his melodies are often monotonous. But there’s a richness to his vocals that overwhelms any technical deficiencies. His voice has incredible emotional depth, and every word out of his mouth is dripping with feeling. Instrumentally, the music is similarly layered. Identical twin guitarists Bryce and Aaron Dessner hide their anger and regret underneath lilting piano, soft strings and swelling horns. It’s a working contradiction — music that is at once intensely chilled and calmly turbulent.
Before the concert, a classmate of mine referred to the band as “sad hipster music”. I enjoy the description, but it’s not entirely apt. Their new record, High Violet, is a moody and atmospheric journey through the darkest recesses of a troubled soul. Hauntingly melancholy, sure. But sad? Not exactly. There is an uplifting hopefulness to their heartache. Berninger has searched his hurt and found something positively life-affirming within it. “All the very best of us string ourselves up for love,” he sings on ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’. This is break-up music of the rarest kind: where you actually feel good for having your heart stepped on.
All of these qualities shine through in concert. Playing an assortment of songs off their past three albums, very few favourites went unheard. ‘England’ is just as spine-tingling live as it is on record. ‘Apartment Story’ is that strangely perfect mix of toe-tapping rhythm and upbeat melody combined with subtly unsettling vocals. Their music can be quite mellow, but make no mistake, this band rocks: ‘Abel’ is a something of a screamer, and Berninger pours his whole self into it. If anything, ‘Slow Show’, a softer song and one of my personal favourites, was tarnished by going too hard with electric distortion.
Performance-wise, the band employs a very simple tech set-up, with minimal lighting and no screens or stage effects. It’s effective. Their darkened silhouettes against a violet-lit canvas is more visually potent than any filtered-lens video projection. The iconic visual of the evening was not a flashing bulb or firing pyrotechnic, but twin brothers holding their guitars up towards each other, rocking in perfect symmetry. Sometimes less really is more.
They played for nearly two hours, touching on material from their entire library. The encore set was punctuated with ‘Mr. November’, a relatively hard-charging tune and one of their better-known songs. But it wasn’t the right note to finish with. The National are quite good at going all out, but their rockers are not the band at their best. They closed with ‘About Today’, a song off 2004’s The Cherry Tree EP — a song which I had never heard before. It was a fitting end. Why go out with a bang when the whimper is more explosive?
It was simply a great evening of live music. Even the opening act, The Walkmen, were wonderful. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it’s this: Next time The National play back-to-back shows in your city, go both nights.