The National’s music can be taken as moody, or perhaps even depressing on the surface level by those not familiar with their work. Some of The National’s most rewarding auditory gems only reveal themselves upon repeat listens, and through this repetition, it’s easier to identify and appreciate the crafty song structures and oddly pleasurable feeling the National can provide. But enigmatic constructs can be thrown out the window when it comes to experiencing The National live. Their performance at the Greek Theatre Saturday showed they have grown to be more comfortable with themselves, evolving for the better while steadfastly staying true to their roots.
So what has changed? One obvious, noteworthy shift is they command theaters now, two nights in a row this past weekend in Berkeley, while eliciting rapturous crowd engagement — silence during the quiet parts while compelling the crowd to carry the load on “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” to end the show, no small feat at an 8,500 person venue. Frontman Matt Berninger mentioned early on it was good to be back. The last time The National played on the U.C. Berkeley campus was with Modest Mouse and REM in 2008. Now six years later, the performance Saturday offered an experience that was segmented into two distinct halves.
The first section of the concert showcased much of the excellent material from Trouble Will Find Me, The National’s sixth album, released in May 2013. There was a sense of arrival with the new music, that they’ve ‘figured it out’ in their lyrical storytelling. There are more direct statements of clarity and satisfaction, admitting “tiny bubbles hang above me, it’s a sign that someone loves me” to open the show stands in stark contrast to the passive aggressive, latent adolescent state of mind found in “Mr. November”. The newest record is less snarky, more direct, as though the guys in The National have grown up substantially.
The songwriting will never be cheery (and let’s hope it never is), but there is more confidence and awareness lyrically. Berninger may claim that “when I walk into a room, I do not light it up” in “Demons”, but that notion is see-through self-degrading hyperbole in the context of the performances this past weekend.
While there is a slightly brighter outlook to the new words, more “Sea of Love” than “Terrible Love”, Berninger, the Dessner & the Devendorf brothers have banded together to create music more springy and full of life, often faster with a more uplifting tonal quality than previous efforts. Some older tracks are treated through this prism — “England”, a somber song from High Violet, was crisp and faster, allowing the song to soar higher, and to be more inspiring live.
If the performance was front loaded with new material, the second half favored the wants and needs of longtime fans. Unsurprisingly, it’s the older material that inspires Berninger to channel his one of a kind angst-joy spectacle. In “Squalor Victoria”, Berninger added a line about his “little brother the fuck up,” slamming the mic & stand to the floor, a coy plug for his brother Tom’s documentary titled Mistaken By Strangers, chronicling the singer’s little brother being a little fuck up on the National’s High Violet tour. “Abel” was a platform for Berninger to lose himself in punk rock intensity as he used to do more often, while per usual, “Fake Empire” and “Mr. November” found the lead man not only reaching out to the audience, but running through it as well.
Poised and energetic with precise control, The National’s music is more accessible and impactful than ever before, and the group is pulling it off in front of the biggest audiences of their career. Slowly winning over fans for 15 years, The National have earned it.
•Portugal. The Man, the opener of the night, were an interesting contrast of falsetto versus baritone between Portugal’s John Gourley and The National’s Matt Berninger.
•”About Today” was one of the most poignant songs of the evening toward the end of the first set. The cut from Cherry Tree was a treat.
•The follow up performance Sunday, April 27th featured The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir for “I Know You Rider” and “Terrible Love” during the encore. Sunday’s setlist included nine songs that weren’t played on Saturday.
•The National uses basic video production equipment in a very effective way. GoPro cameras flank the artists, and the imagery is filtered with glich-filled, broken pixilation, reflecting the fractured feeling of disconnect found in The National’s music.