(5 Jun 2013: Barclays Center Brooklyn, NY)
“We’ve played about thirty-five venues,” in and around the area began The National’s lead singer Matt Berninger, before adding the wry comment, “but this was always our favorite. This is where it all started”. This was a few songs into the band’s two hour performance at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and the characteristic bit of dry humor wasn’t the first nor the last spoken at the band’s biggest headlining show of their career. For those fans who have followed the band’s recent activities in and around New York City, they may have recognized another inside joke before “Sorrow”, when Berninger said something to the extent of “we know this better than others”. For those not in the know, just last month, the band performed the song for six straight hours as part of a performance art piece conceived by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson at MoMa PS1.
On another NYC-centric day, that the album’s release, the band arranged to do at least three shows in the City, each in a tiny venue (if the small Sycamore bar could be considered a proper venue) for a band of this caliber. The band—which includes Berninger plus the brothers Dessner (Aaron and Bryce) on guitars along with the other brother pair of Scott and Bryan Devendorf (on bass and drums respectively) didn’t just put on an easy show to satisfy their fans who couldn’t get into the tiny venues. Instead, they made the night a showcase of their work, particularly of their new album Trouble Will Find Me, complete with projected backdrops and additional musicians, including Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman) and Nadia Sirota, for the thousands in attendance.
Berninger’s jokes were consistent throughout the night, though he recognized that not all of The National’s lyrics were similarly wrought. He mentioned that “Conversation 16” was about the Atkin’s diet and eating brains. The song, one of the highlights off of High Violet, and it’s “I’m evil” chorus became one of the many moments in the evening where it sounded like the entire arena had joined in to sing along. Before going into the straightforwardly-titled “I Need My Girl”, Berninger said, “this song has no clever metaphors it’s just about my wife”. After Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) joined the band for the next song, “This is the Last Time”, she gave hugs to a few in the band and left the stage. She was then chided for not hugging everyone on stage (though she didn’t return to make amends).
The National’s songs and music have their own consistency, yet remain a different breed from those of most bands. Their tunes (and the musicians) are adept enough to achieve infinite scalability; they are strong enough to provide an emotional punch in a small venue yet tense and teeming with enough energy to rock a large arena. Berninger’s understated and occasionally overstressed vocals have as much to do with this musical characteristic as the Dessner brothers’ dynamic guitars do. At one point, I thought I saw one of the brothers (stage right) bang a guitar down on its neck to produce a heavy tone from it—while still wearing a guitar over his shoulders. Meanwhile, the frontman is capable of more than transforming his voice, he also can express ferocity in his stage presence. While Berninger was particularly restrained early in the set, brooding while drinking out of a red Solo cup, he let loose later—during several songs, he stormed about the stage with his microphone stand in tow.
When the band began their five-song encore with “I Should Live in Salt”, I was surprised in part because the band could have just ended with the previous song, “Fake Empire” (though it was still before 11 pm and seemed short of any curfew), but also because the song sounded much stronger live than I had anticipated. Perhaps the effects of the sonically triumphant main set closer were still lingering but this song had immediately hooked me on their newest album, Trouble Will Find Me, so that was adding to the excitement. Another High Violet favorite, the smoldering “Terrible Love” came soon after, demonstrating yet again how bombastic the band can be. And it could have been the end of the night there.
However, the band reconvened once more to conclude on a quieter note, performing “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” acoustically, while welcoming the entire arena to sing along—something the audience clearly hadn’t been afraid to do all night and were happy to do once again. Its a closure the band has done before, but it became a challenge of sorts for Berninger—could his voice fill the arena without the aid of a microphone? Well he didn’t avoid one altogether as it turned out. Overall the show came off as a tremendous success and the Brooklyn locals have achieved a major milestone in their career, demonstrating the majesty they can deliver. Perhaps the Barclays Center should hang a banner for The National alongside the ones with Nets’ jersey numbers, or maybe not. We don’t want them to retire just yet.
Don’t Swallow the Cap
Mistaken for Strangers
Sea of Love
Afraid of Everyone
I Need My Girl
This is the Last Time (w/ St. Vincent)
I Should Live in Salt
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks