I typically listen to The National while writing, like right now, letting lead vocalist Matt Berninger’s baritone lull me into focus in the background. At their performance last Tuesday, though, Berninger pulled me into his show, his intensity tangible as he sang like he was sharing the song with the person it’s about for the first time.
The stage production transported us to a scene of cosmic swirls flashing and moving hypnotically, like a scene from the “Twin Peaks” revival. The band put on the show, but the lighting and graphics worked seamlessly with them and made the concert.
Berninger’s vocals were as smooth and enthralling as they are on recordings; as my friend put it, he sounds like the Marlboro Man decided to be a melancholic indie rock singer.
Each band member, too, boasted the musicianship of the seasoned professionals they are by simply playing the songs, seemingly with little effort, and being passionately invested in their performance.
That’s not to say their Orpheum set was flawless. Mid-show, Berninger’s cavernous voice went silent — all that was heard during “Day I Die” was the melody. Whether the singer didn’t notice or his professionalism drove him on, that didn’t stop him. He continued his usual wide-strided paces across the stage, gesturing and moving energetically with his band.
But, the band was well-rehearsed and fully invested in every song. With little crowd interaction besides Berninger throwing three filled red Solo cups into the audience and jumping into it, it felt like I was listening to a yet-to-be-made The National’s Essentials album: They played every song you would expect, plus many more.
They played a series of tracks from their 2017 album Sleep Well Beast for the first quarter of their lengthy (21 songs) show. Then, they crammed a group of fan favorites from their previous albums, the majority from Trouble Will Find Me and High Violet, including my personal favorite National track, “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” Those had the multigenerational crowd — including fans from the beginning of the band’s 20-year run — singing along. They also treated us to a couple new tracks they confessed to having recently changed the lyrics to, but, luckily, remembered this time.
When the end did come, it was perfect. They stripped down to simply two acoustic guitars, and the band lined up across the front of the stage. They sang “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” in unison, along with the swaying crowd. Angelic lights shone on all of us — it brought back the campy vibes they’ve grown accustomed to from performing at the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival several times.
The National’s opener, Lucy Dacus, deserves a mention. I saw her recently at the Pitchfork Music Festival, where she blended into the lineup of other strong-presence, guitar-slaying female singers. Having a stage to herself in a smaller, enclosed venue did her well. Her sexy voice on “Timefighter,” a track off her newest album Historian, bounced off the walls, and she felt more powerful. Dacus has influences of silky vocalists like Norah Jones and rocker Feist, but her own unique, soft presence boasts notes and guitar runs you wouldn’t expect. She set the mood beautifully for the headliner.
For how long the band’s been going, it didn’t show. Berninger’s voice was rich and unbreaking for all the songs, while the band’s energy swelled like the trumpet and trombone adding beautiful brass notes to soften their loud tracks. It may not have been the perfect show, but it seemed to be what the crowd was pleased with after seeing a longtime favorite band.
Sammy Gibbons is Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Cardinal. To read more of her work, click here.