The National played a sold-out benefit concert at Brooklyn Academy of Music on Saturday night, and the experience was both strange and wonderful.
I suppose a bit of displacement should be expected. After all, The National's Matt Berninger is a stand-alone vocalist who woos substantial critical masses with a distinctive, if not slightly off-putting baritone, and odd lyrical choices ("Standing at the punch table swallowing punch" - "Slow Show", for example). Still, I wasn't prepared for my first National show to be so very...awkward. It sounds like a disparaging assessment, I know. But in reality, it's that gawky characteristic &mdash Berninger and the brothers Dessner (Aaron and Bryce) and Devendorf (Scott and Bryan), looking a bit out of place, even at their gigantically buzzed about release week show &mdash that provides the reason why it's worth believing in these guys.
Let me explain.
Taking a seat a few minutes behind the 8 o'clock set time, I arrived to find Berninger nowhere to be found...though the audiences' fixed attention on the orchestra aisles below quickly revealed his location; in the crowd, pouncing amongst the floor folks while taking concert goers by the hand like some strange, liberal arts professor version of Bono. It's an unexpected scene to enter if you've never seen a National show I guess, though it doesn't last long.
A few moments later, Berninger was on stage, leading his band mates through an hour and a half plus worth of music, pulling tunes from their recent album High Violet as well as their ever-growing back catalogue. In the hue of BAM's brightest lights (cranked high for the DA Pennebaker directed video of the performance...clips featured below), the band made the most of the elegant setting, giving their rich and regal sound every chance to flourish with the addition of a string quartet, a number of horn players, and a few added instrumentalists.
Of particular note was Bryan Devendorf's role behind the drum kit. As unassuming as they come, Devendorf's craft for laying dense and deliberate roots for the rest of the band is an impressive process in which to watch/listen. He seems to respect every tone and every role his drums should play, stopping time on his right hand so that a well chosen smack on his left takes the lead. It's nothing fancy, but God, is it effective.
Also, not surprising, the band invited buddy Sufjan Stevens on for a few dramatic performances, including High Violet's leading track "Afraid of Everyone".
Yet the defining personality &mdash the centerpiece of The National, if you will &mdash unquestionably belongs to that of Berninger. He's a 39 year old who left a high powered gig at a top NYC creative firm a few years back to pursue the band full time. ..the noble statesmen of Brooklyn's Never Neverland hit factory, clearly enjoying what is becoming an intensifying glow gleamed on his band. And despite it all, he never looks comfortable. Gripping the mic firmly with one hand, Berniger tends to hang on for dear life, stumbling about on stage as he gargles his vocals. There's also that nervous looking shimmy he does...his right leg sort of nervously wobbling around. It's an odd charisma, offsetting at first, but eventually settling in over the course of the performance. But his transitions beg the question: why is it both present and important?
Berninger is a man of simple observances. ("Be still for a second while I try and try to pin your flowers on" - "Apartment Story") and strange metaphors ("I leaned on the wall and the wall leaned away" - "Slow Show"). And that casual, if not nervous behavior is endearing. I suppose his behavior is due to his idiosyncratic (or not) place in the band...almost as if anyone could be swapped in his place. But The National would not be The National without Berninger. His dual nature: discomfort, and understated importance, coupled with his trademark baritone and lyricism, makes the band a unique experience which requires his presence.
Their iTunes charting today proves the point; The National are here to stay. It's no wonder Berninger, the Dessners, and the Devendorfs are quickly becoming a point of National pride. - David Pitz