Review: The National bring intense live show to sold-out Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
The National is, in some ways, a family band, but all comparisons to the Jackson 5 stop there.
The band comprises vocalist Matt Berninger, actual brothers Bryce (guitar) and Aaron Dessner (guitar, keyboards) along with twins Scott (bass) and Bryan Devendorf (drums). Members are consistently involved in other projects, but when they come together in all their familial intensity, magic happens. This is evident in the group’s newest album, September’s “Sleep Well Beast.”
Their Nov. 27 stop at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall came right on the heels of Thanksgiving weekend, and the band’s somber sound and a sold-out audience filled the concert hall.
“Sleep Well Beast” is a more jittered take on the band’s dark sound, and songs from earlier in its discography took on a more frantic feel live. Before the group took the stage, three large screens angled toward the audience read: “Stand by” as a clock below counted the minutes between the opener This is The Kit’s and The National’s sets.
The band opened the set with “Sleep Well Beast’s” “Nobody Else Will Be There” and mixed in the band’s entire discography. Bryce Dessner’s atmospheric guitar playing and his creative use of the instrument’s body itself were a highlight. At one point, he dropped a guitar on its head for a percussive effect then shook it to create a controlled feedback.
The audience stayed seated until the show moved from somber to somber-yet-danceable songs. Once the crowd stood, it was up for good. When the band had moved on to crowd favorites like “Fake Empire” from 2007’s “Boxer” and “Turtlenecks,” the audience on the main floor was standing and yelling lyrics as if they were all Berninger, too —expressive hand motions included. Blue, dark purple and red backdrops provided a vibrant visual compared to the band’s other physically stagnant members.
Berninger, somehow both an eccentric and laid-back frontman, had a habit of dedicating songs to people such as politician Karl Rove. “He’s a piece of shit,” he said, referring to a debacle with the former Bush advisor about the song, “Walk it Back.” But Berninger also dedicated songs to his wife, Carin, and former tourmates. Before “Carin at the Liquor Store,” Berninger mentioned that a line in the song reminded him of Kevin Malone’s band Scrantonicity from the TV show, “The Office,” almost to the point where he didn’t put it on the album. “I forced that down,” he said.
He often careened his neck to get more intimate with the microphone, sometimes screaming and howling when the song called for it. Songs such as “I Need My Girl” showcased Berninger’s dynamic voice — which sometimes doesn’t come across on recordings.
The band’s first post-holiday show of the tour rarely featured flat or boring moments — it was at its best when playing with sprawling, more complicated songs. After leaving the stage one-by-one, the band earned a well-received encore, ending on “Mr. November” from “Alligator” and “Terrible Love” from the album, “High Violet.” Berninger’s voice cracked multiple times during “Mr. November” as he screamed, “I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November.” He walked through the crowd before tossing his microphone over his shoulder and yelled the phrase, “It’s quiet company,” throughout “Terrible Love.”
If anything, The National is the exact opposite of that phrase live.