The National could have played it safe and concentrated on Boxer or even written the same set night after night, but that’s not the case here.
Towards the end of the National’s set at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Matt Berninger dropped his gloomy stage persona, allowing a genuine moment of warmth to shine through. Up until that point, the singer alternated between melancholia and amped-up rage, either gripping the microphone in closed-eye sadness or knocking over the monitors and balancing on Bryan Devendorf’s bass drum. His banter was minimal, dedicating songs to Karl Rove and Michael Flynn. Sometimes he retreated to the rear of the stage to take a slug of wine out of a plastic cup, flinging the empty vessel into the crowd once finished.
As the band barreled to the end of its 22-song setlist, one that leaned heavily on excellent new album, Sleep Well Beast, Berninger beckoned to a man who stood a few rows from the front. The excited guest worked his way to the stage where Berninger locked him in an embrace and kissed him on the cheek. The man pumped his fists and retreated back into the crowd. This moment of warmth, a gentle oasis in a tempest of songs that tipped towards gloom and anger, showed just why the National has become one of the most beloved bands in rock today.
Playing in front of a sold-out crowd, the National began the show with slow-burning new track, “Nobody Else Will Be There.” During the slower songs, Berninger sang with his eyes half-closed, hidden behind thick glasses. His baritone is not as smooth as on record, the rougher edges working towards the surface in the live setting. Flanking the singer were two sets of brothers: drummer Devendorf and bassist Scott, along with the Dessner twins, multi-instrumentalist Aaron and guitarist Bryce, who kept the music going as the mercurial frontman stalked the stage or even jumped into the crowd.
Over the course of nearly two hours, the National played nine cuts from Sleep Well Beast and four from Trouble Will Find Me, as well as cherry-picking both from older, much-loved songs (“Fake Empire,” “Secret Meeting”) and more obscure material (“Rylan,” “Wasp Nest”). While fans could bemoan the few songs from Boxer and High Violet that appeared, the National’s newer material is just as strong as what made the group a critical darling for nearly two decades.
Despite following “Nobody” with fantastic, upbeat new song “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” it took until the sixth song of the set (“Don’t Swallow the Cap”) for the audience to get up onto its feet. Balancing a set with new and old material is a tough act, especially when you have so many songs to choose from. The National could have played it safe and concentrated on Boxer or even written the same set night after night, but that’s not the case here. Just because the National closes with “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” one night, doesn’t mean you can expect that at your show (we got “Terrible Love” instead).
After a few cathartic tracks such as “Turtleneck” and “Mr. November,” Berninger’s voice sounded ragged. As the band launched into “Terrible Love,” I reached up to give the singer a high-five. Instead, he grabbed me, clutched my hand and shouted, “It takes an ocean not to break,” into my face. The show thundered to its conclusion and Berninger handed me his half-finished bottle of wine before leaving the stage. I took a deep drink and passed it to the people next to me. There’s that warmth I was talking about.