Five years ago I was depressed. I was going through my first real breakup, I was drinking too much (the kind of drinking where you justify having vodka with breakfast) and I was taking a lot of two-hour long walks. It was during those walks along Lake Superior that I first fell in love with The National. Matt Berninger’s forlorn voice was the perfect companion for my sorry state; he didn’t judge me as I drank by myself watching ‘How I met Your Mother’, he sat right along side me, laughing with that gravely voice of his.
When I imagined seeing The National live, I pictured sitting next to Berninger at Club Saratoga (a strip club/music venue in Duluth) while he serenaded me sweetly across glasses of whiskey & rye. Instead I entered the belly of Barclays center, clutching my Stella as I looked around the auditorium thinking, “Is this really where I want to see The National?” The arena seemed imposing and the stage looked liked a child’s dollhouse in comparison; the amount of sound & stage presence needed to fill such a venue was not something that I would normally attribute to The National.
Opening act, Youth Lagoon, seemed determined to prepare the audience for the night’s melancholy orgy. Standing in a straight line across the stage, the bands music as well as its style was strangely uniform. It took me a good four songs to figure out who was the lead singer, and by that point my beer glass was empty so I quickly vacated to the booze line. Overall, the Boise, Idaho band, fronted by singer Trevor Powers, gives off the feeling of listening to music under water: pleasant, calming, easy to ignore.
The National, from the moment they stepped on stage, gave off the confidence of a band well seasoned. “This is where it all started. We’re so happy to be back at Barclays, “ Berninger quipped with an uncomfortable laugh. “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, from their most recent album Trouble Will Find Me, lead off the night, but the third song “Mistaken for Strangers” was what got audience attention. The most interesting part of the night was watching the band’s nervous, excited energy shift throughout their set as they reacted to the crowd. The audience was practically a member of the band: encouraging, singing backup, quick to clap at the slightest inference of a beat.
“We know this song better than any of our other songs right now. We’re well rehearsed,” Berninger joked of the song “Sorrow” from 2010’s High Violet, which the band recently performed at MoMa Ps1. Created by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, the installation was titled “A lot of Sorrow”; the band performed the song for six hours, a total of 105 times. The joke was lost on me at the time, but after the show I was able to watch the exhausting repetition. Similar to their Barclay show, fans drove the music, raising their voices in unison to the memorized words.
St. Vincent’s Annie Clarke joined them on stage for their performance of ‘This is the Last Time’; her voice was airy and barely floated in the background. It would have been an interesting song to do a different take on, but as it was, it felt like Clarke wasn’t even there. Another aspect that didn’t quite hit was the inclusion of stock video in the background; it wasn’t until I saw video of smoke billowing up behind a tree line that I once again became aware of my lack of beer.
While I would still have preferred to sit close up at a bar or a tavern, breathing in the moody gloom, I was duly impressed with the energy The National conveyed on stage; the space they were able to easily fill. After a three-song encore, the band played an unamplified performance of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” from 2011’s High Violet; the performance was sparse, raw. As my date for the night noted, “I think that was the most honest moment of this whole show”.