One of my favorite bands and the best musical discoveries I’ve made in recent years played my favorite venue in all the world last night. Some people would have no trouble giving in and allowing themselves to enjoy a moment like that when the stars all seem to align. I’m not one of them. I kept waiting for something to go wrong. While waiting for the other shoe to drop, I witnessed a stunning performance. The most remarkable moment of the evening came long after I’d realized no catastrophic moment was going to undo the evening. Just when I thought they’d given everything, they gave one final offering that cemented this as one of those moments you had to experience to understand. Perhaps the last laugh is the one they have now, the day after, as I struggle to take you on the journey they took me on.
The National is not a conventional rock band. They didn’t storm the stage at historic Ryman Auditorium. They didn’t unleash a torrent of big guitars or thundering drum solos nor did they play a string of classic, hit singles with big choruses that everyone sang along to, yet this five-piece band from Brooklyn by way of Ohio with three additional players held the assembled hipsters, indie cool kids, and a chubby, schlumo of a middle aged man captive for a 20-song set that was intense, moving, and at times accidentally-on-purpose hilarious.
The hilarity on this night stems as much from there being any evidence of a sense of humor on the part of a band known for a catalog of songs filled with dark, murky, mysterious imagery as much as the actual jokes and banter. Aaron and Bryce Dessner took turns heckling their frontman, Matt Berninger, blaming him for their reputation as serious and miserable people and also threatening to unionize against him. Berninger playfully jabbed back at some of these taunts while sometimes shrugging them off with a bewildered look and quiet chuckle. Rather than feeling incongruous, these rejoinders added depth to the emotional patchwork of the evening’s performance. The National is serious about their music and serious in their music but don’t take themselves so seriously that a little silliness will throw them off their game.
Not many bands would open their show with a somber, meditative song like “Runaway” and I’d say it’s almost a subversive thing to do but The National catalog isn’t filled with the kind of songs that open a high-octane rock and roll show. I suspect these guys would probably do something like this anyway and in its own way “Runaway” set the tone for the evening. The show worked well for me early on as they interspersed songs from their breathtaking new record High Violet with ones from Alligator and Boxer, the two albums preceding it. “Slow Show” and “Squalor Victoria” bogged things down a bit as neither of these from Boxer rate as particular favorites for me but the latter injected some aggressive intensity. The paranoia and fear of “Afraid of Everyone” benefitted from that mood shift and when they unleashed a furious first half of the “Available/Cardinal Song” medley, there were shockwaves. The main set closed with inspired, celebratory performances of “England” from High Violet and perhaps the band’s best-known song, “Fake Empire,” from Boxer.
The amazing close to the main set was a prelude of things to come in the encore, which opened with “90 Mile Water Wall” from Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. Berninger then did his usual routine of racing, climbing, and staggering through the crowd during “Mr. November,” at one point standing and singing from the seat directly behind me. That raucous delivery transitioned to an anthemic, emphatic “Terrible Love.” “About Today” is a powerful, moving song often used as a show closer when multi-instrumentalist Padma Newsome joins the band as he did last night. The song’s intended meaning is forceful enough but has become more personal to me with the way it accidentally intertwined with real life for me earlier this year. When the final notes of that song were finished, so was I. I let out a slow, sustained exhale and prepared for the house lights to come on, which they did but not because the show was over.
Guitarist Bryce Dessner addressed the crowd, moved by what a beautiful building Ryman is and how it was constructed more than 100 years ago, predating modern amplifiers, microphones, and PA systems. Buildings like this were constructed to house public performances without the need for any of that and the band wanted to take a crack at doing that as well, so they closed with the last song from High Violet, “Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks” and did so with acoustic guitars, an unamplified violin, muted trombone and trumpet, tambourine, and Berninger singing with urgency made more palpable by the absence of a microphone and with the assistance of his bandmates and the entire audience. Magic is real and often fleeting. I felt its presence more than once throughout the evening but never more spectacularly than those final moments when the the barrier between band and audience disappeared moments before the band did for the final time that night.
The National Set List, October 3, 2010, Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN:
- Anyone’s Ghost
- Mistaken For Strangers
- Bloodbuzz Ohio
- Slow Show
- Squalor Victoria
- Afraid of Everyone
- Available/Cardinal Song
- Conversation 16
- Apartment Song
- Green Gloves
- Fake Empire
- 90 Mile Water Wall
- Mr. November
- Terrible Love
- About Today
- Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks (Unplugged)