A rather convincing argument can be made for The National being one of the most significant bands in rock ‘n’ roll over the past decade. Friday night’s return to the Greek Theatre at U.C. Berkeley continued to assist this argument as Matt Berninger and company played a stunning show to a growing, devout crowd on a quintessentially foggy Bay Area summer night. While this tour stop featured a slightly more subdued version of Berninger onstage, this evening wasn’t about his antics, but rather experimenting with a sizable handful of new tracks.
As large music festivals continue to dominate the landscape from May to October across the country and beyond, “non-shed” summer tours are becoming an endangered species. Luckily, The National have had their fill with these events and decided to take a little West Coast jaunt with fellow New York outfit The Lone Bellow, as the indie-leaning folk/blues group brought a surprising amount of energy to an already packed venue. There’s little doubt that frontman Zach Williams and his band won over new fans as their electric stage presence was pretty hard to deny through a genuine engagement with the crowd that was palpable.
The real headline from The National’s performance was hands down the new material that was debuted, pretty much across their entire set, encore included. A rather standard opening of “Don’t Swallow the Cap” and “I Should Live in Salt” led into our first taste of the band’s upcoming LP in the form of “Checking Out”. Though many locals likely recognized this track from last year’s Treasure Island Music Festival (read our review here), it has tightened up over the past year and even begins to sound familiar as the Brooklyn-based five-piece begins to weave in more electronic, synth-like elements.
As much as this sounds like a surprising move, one that could be seen as a risk, the foreign instrumentation is falling nicely into place as fans begin to get a broader scope of the group’s seventh full length. “Find a Way” is another example of this shifting sound, one that could be attributed to Berninger’s side project EL VY, which he formed with Brent Knopf of Menomena, from the past year. Similar to other indie-rock bands like The Walkmen, The National are on a keen path to continually evolving their sound as they age with their stunning catalog.
Other highlights from the Greek show was the sole West Coast rendition of “Slow Show”, an always-blistering rendition of “England” and a nod to the Grateful Dead and their home turf. While many in the know were aware that Bob Weir was playing a little more than 100 miles away in Wheatland, Calif., that still didn’t stop Berninger from offering a guest tease as the group quipped about his past sit-in from 2014 and launched into the Bonnie Dobson track “Morning Dew”. Though this may have been the shortest rendition of the track many Dead fans have heard, it was Berninger’s baritone vocals that added an intense weight to the GD classic. The connection that The National’s five core members seem to have to the music of the Dead is unwavering, and as they gear up for the live debut of the album, one can only imagine how special the Eaux Claires set next weekend in Eau Claire, Wis., will be.
Berkeley received a fairly similar encore to the one the band performed the previous night in Los Angeles, though theirs had Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, singing on new ballad “Prom Song 13th Century (Frankie & Johnny)” and Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs playing along to “Terrible Love”. On this night, Berninger was the sole spectacle for the band’s final songs as he climbed into the crowd, eventually making his way about halfway up the stone seats while getting the occasional “vocal guest” on a raucous version of “Mr. November”. Berninger is one helluva frontman and is truly a massive appeal to their live performance. Watching him onstage can be compared to other “mad geniuses” like Monet, as witnessing the cathartic process of a man pour his soul out to others is one that is both personal and increasingly hard to look away from.
Don’t Swallow the Cap
I Should Live in Salt
Checking Out (new song)
Afraid of Everyone
I Need My Girl
This Is the Last Time
Sometimes I Don’t Think (new song)
Find a Way (new song)
Sea of Love
The Lights (new song)
Morning Dew (Bonnie Dobson cover)
The Day I Die (new song)
Prom Song 13th Century (Frankie & Johnny) (new song)