It took them many years, but the National has climbed to the top of the heap of indie bands. The band has rubbed shoulders with President Obama and R.E.M. took them on its final tour before calling it quits. Six albums in and the band recently sold out one of Portland’s largest non-arena venues. Can we even call these guys indie anymore?
The dark and stormy Saturday night was the perfect setting for the National’s brand of morose but propulsive rock. Fans who braved Frightened Rabbit’s opening set got drenched but the skies held their water for most of the National’s 24 song, two-hour extravaganza concentrating heavily on songs from recent efforts High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me.
I’ve seen the National four times since the release of Boxer back in 2007 and Matt Berninger has grown as a frontman. Maybe it was the pinot gris and ice he constantly quaffed throughout the concert (calling himself a “philistine” for doing so), but when I first saw Berninger open for Arcade Fire on the Neon Bible tour, he stood stock still the entire set, hugging himself with one arm and gripping the microphone with the other. He maintained the same manner at Bonnaroo a few months later and I wrote the band off as one of those better on record than live. Fast forward to Sasquatch in 2010 and Berninger seemed like a changed man, running about the stage, hanging from the side and engaging the crowd. Maybe fame helped him bust out of his shell. Maybe it’s the booze. “Give the man some wine and he turns into Iggy Pop,” my friend commented the other night. Either way, the National now puts on one hell of a show.
It took a little time for the Portland show to hit its stride. Despite reaching the third slot on the Billboard 200, Trouble Will Find Me feels like a step back from the wild glory of High Violet, the songs more a lateral move than a great step forward. Opening with “I Should Live in Salt” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” the National’s performance felt a tad laden with malaise, a feeling that crept into third song “Sorrow.” Then again, the band could still be sick of playing that one 105 times over six hours at a recent stint at MOMA.
Berninger took time between the songs to comment on the crappy weather, joking that the fog machine was unnecessary. As the mist swirled in, threatening to make the band invisible, Berninger quipped that he felt like he was on the set of a Batman movie.
The concert began to pick up about a third of the way in with “Conversation 16.” By this point, Berninger had put down a few glasses of wine and the dynamism he had shown at Sasquatch began to return. For their part, the brothers Dessner and Devendorf backed Berninger with balanced, impeccable versions of songs ranging from “Squalor Victoria” to “Abel.” New song “I Need My Girl” was particularly haunting and first set-closer “Fake Empire” finally made good on the show’s early promises by reaching emotional highs.
The show’s one low point came when the band returned for a four song encore. While covering Perfume Genius’ “Learning,” the band leached all the life out of a precious, intimate song, but things instantly improved with a rocking takes on “Mr. November” and “Terrible Love” that saw Berninger walk on the slippery rail at the front of the stage and plunge into the crowd. As if on cue, the skies opened up again during the crescendos of “Terrible Love,” almost as if the National could control the heavens. The show ended on an intimate night as the entire band stood at the front of the stage and performed a stripped-down version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” as the rain poured down. Most of the crowd stayed put, shouting back the lyrics at the National, weather and heavens be damned.