Brooklyn based quintet The National has grown considerably since their 2001 self-titled debut and more recently with their masterful 2005 Alligator record. The first time I saw Matt Berninger and the two sets of brothers was at Schubas in November of 2005 in support of Alligator. Back then, they opened for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but less than two years later, they are headlining a sold out show at the roomier Metro.
Download: The National - "Slow Show"
Raconteur Berninger always gives an intense performance gripping the mike and singing with his eyes shut feeling every note. He is the only member of the band who doesn’t play an instrument, so sometimes he seemed a bit schizo on stage, wandering around aimlessly, except when he unexpectantly fell into the audience. The band opened with the romantic “Start a War” from their newly released fourth album, Boxer. Pounding drums, a crashing violin, and Berninger’s deeply affecting vocals ensued. The next track was the poignant “Slow Show” that palpitated and rocked. The National’s live sets reverberate and ricochet transcending their recordings. They performed “Secret Meeting,” their best known track because of its subliminal use in a Saturn commercial. At this juncture, the scent of weed began to waft throughout the area. The National fans are potheads? Some of the audience members seemed to react too much to the set: one girl cried either because she was moved by the performance or maybe she was just a weepy drunk; one guy kept overzealously jumping up and down with his keys jangling all over the place, and another douchebag kept invading everyone’s 18 inches of personal space.
The guys played a new track “Brainy,” followed by another Alligator fave, the lamenting “Baby, We’ll be Fine.” The faces in the audience lit up as the guitar and violin helped build up the intensity of the song. On Boxer track “Squalor Victoria,” Berninger increased his volume and screamed out the name of the track while egging the audience to clap along. “Daughters of the Soho Riots” brought the energy down with its methodical and melancholy rhythm and lyrics. Four Boxer songs followed with the first single from the album, “Fake Empire,” finishing the set with the violinist killing the strings. The guys took a two minute break and came out for a three song encore comprised of the enchanting “Gospel” and the exuberant “Mr. November” entailing Berninger shouting out the violent chorus, “I won’t fuck us over, Mr. November.” The electrically charged “Abel” ended the show on a zenith. The set only drew from the aggressive Alligator and more sedated Boxer with a dearth of adequate tracks from Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers such as “Murder Me Rachael” and “Available” missing.
The National has increasingly evolved into an important band coalescing into a tight group of musicians. In New York, they sold out all five of their shows indicative of things to come. Maybe in a couple of years, they’ll be selling out three shows at Chicago Theater like Arcade Fire. Until then, they can relish hovering on the periphery before they get usurped by the mainstream.