Sometimes it’s easy to gauge, heading into a concert, what it might essentially mean to be “in concert” with a particular live act. Expectations can be calculated about what the music will be like performed before a live audience, as well as expectations concerning how the live audience will receive it. The artist’s in-concert relationship with the crowd is occasionally even established through explicit, yes/no, black/white questions of the “Are you with us?” and “Are you ready?” variety. Hair metal humped every penny out of this formula. Noise was demanded and noise was delivered.
Such expectations were not easy to define heading into The National’s stop at Stage AE Tuesday night. To the uninitiated, what would this minimalist ensemble of sometimes docile, sometimes volcanic, bluntly-spoken yet still understated trumpeters of loosely-conjured but perfectly-phrased metaphors be like live? Who would show? And what would they be like? How would they take it?
Well, everybody showed. All walks of life seemed equally represented, almost as if hand-chosen to get them all in one place, only to be loaded onto a spacecraft and blasted off to populate a distant moon, somewhere far away, with a foundation of cultural diversity and manners (the manners at this show were fantastic, at least as far as manners go in America in 2013). Middle-aged men in Pirates jerseys gushed at “I Need My Girl” and took pictures with their smart phones, and none of it seemed weird.
And that was the big takeaway from what The National did Tuesday night. They were extremely successful in the making and nourishment of an in-concert relationship. Between most songs, lead singer Matt Berninger actually did ask explicit questions, but of the quick, very basic, very human “I’m Forrest Gump/I’m Dorothy Harris/I guess we’re not strangers anymore” persuasion. The role of Berninger was played by Daniel Day Lewis, it should be noted, as his silvering years are undeniably beginning to silhouette (at least in dark concert halls) a baritone Lincoln, charm included. His singing posture could best be described as aggressively passive-aggressive, as he’s really leaning forward into his usually soft deliveries. Usually soft is appropriate because he does have another gear, most notably on display throughout “Squalor Victoria” when he really cuts loose, like someone who only drinks on holidays. He even went through a leisurely stroll through the crowd during the encore. No surfing. No jumping. The man walked and sang and shook hands and got back on stage and resumed his forward-lean as if all he had done was retrieve a dropped pencil or checked the mail. On the whole, the big question of the night was how such an unassuming dude could whirlpool a crowd of lovers of unassuming music into, at specific moments, an absolute frenzy. This process was Gandhi-esque. He salt-marched through StageAE general admission ticket holders.
All of it was strange and loud and extremely visual (in the best way possible, the lighting for this show was next-level bonkers, featuring 8mm still-life clips trimmed with purposeful beams of single-color appropriations). Berninger and company struck up an innocent conversation, and delivered extremely well-executed renditions of their songs, most of which, by the way, carry visions of collaborative work between Warren Zevon, Tom Waits, and a napping Louie Armstrong, awoken solely for the polishing of most of the band’s tracks with blank-check instructions along the lines of “When we get near the end of this song, do whatever you makes you happy.” Every horn solo sent the crowd into a smiling frenzy, as if there was a collective remembrance of fifth grade versions of themselves talking their parents into financing a saxophone or a clarinet or tuba, practicing scales, and coming together for “Yankee Doodle” and “Greensleeves” and “Lean on Me.”
What really comes through live, however, is the pulse forwarded by the work of drummer Bryan Devendorf, whose precision and pace manages to puppeteer heartbeats that may not even fully comprehend the meaning of every lyric or every song, thus dragging the listener along for the ride regardless of confusion or clarity. His involvement in each track, especially performed live, is constructed to near perfection, which leads to more gushing praise: the minimalism present in how each instrument comes together in The National’s work is all-at-once simple and profound; the machinations of the band’s song constructions are extremely pleasing, so perfectly layered. Each song is heard so clearly and brightly that you can see through the depth of the disarming and often ambiguous lyrical elements and discover your own meaning (“Go ahead, go ahead, lose your shirts in the fire tonight”).
This was a performance oozing with charm, somehow easily conjuring solidarity—and smiling solidarity at that—in the middle of uncontrolled doom-dives.
Berninger: “I’m the moron who dances.”
Audience: “Us, too.”
Berninger: “I was afraid I’d eat your brains.”
And that’s a credit to the songwriting process. The band is keenly aware of a collective weirdness that is definitely universal, but possibly not as routinely accepted as we sometimes think, at least not in the manner we think. Many grow up in social jungles that worship normalcy, whatever that means, only to rebel against it, whatever that means. The natural reaction is to seek a small group with whom these individuals can achieve what has evolved into fashionable ostracism. We all live on the fringe now, all of us nothing less than the unique and special snowflakes we were assured we would become. But “Hanging from chandeliers/Same small world at your heels/All the very best of us string ourselves up for love” doesn’t read as high-brow exclusive hipster nonsense. It’s painfully and beautifully and wonderfully collective. And Tuesday night it made for one hell of a curtain call. The band led the audience through a stripped down rendition of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” in which Berninger kept a distance from the mic and allowed the audience to carry the closer. Either party could have been saying “Thank you.” Either party could have been saying “You’re welcome.” Everyone was a geek without being competitive about it, which was nice.
It was a performance that genuinely asked us how we were feeling, and then wished us all a pleasant evening without further complication. The band’s departure was a clean goodbye. Then everybody left, humming, each of us on our way to wherever it is we were going, determined not to figure out everything at once. Simplicity ruled, and it was extremely powerful.
Photos by Scarlett Chepke