If National frontman Matt Berninger ever decides to change careers, he could be a preacher or a shaman or the dictator of a small country.
During the hour and a half or so that he and his four bandmates (plus assorted guest players) commanded New York City's Terminal Five stage Thursday night, as part of the week-long SPIN25-ZYNC concert series, the elegant, epically tall singer transformed three-thousand sticky, demanding, and somewhat inebriated fans into an obedient mass of joyful disciples. When he raged, they raged. When he was still and pensive, they were still and pensive. When he danced awkwardly, thrashing his head along with twin guitarists' Aaron and Bryce Dessner's cacophonous noise, they thrashed too, and didn't care how they looked. To be there was to be free.
The National build a live set the way they've built their career: slowly, deliberately, and with breathtaking confidence. They began with the slow-burn anthem "Start A War" off their 2007 career-making album The Boxer, the crowd mouthing -- but not actually singing -- every word of the first few delicately delivered verses so as to participate without interfering. And they seemed to hold their breath through the entire propulsive elegy "Anyone's Ghost." But by the third song, "Blood Buzz Ohio," Berninger started to let his supplicants off the leash a bit, their voices joining his rich baritone as it rose above Bryan and Scott Devendorf's driving drums and bass to moan-sing "I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees."
Swigging cheap white wine from a plastic cup, Berninger whipped through the next few songs, pacing the stage in between vocal parts, like a possessed ringmaster. The typically restrained chorus to "Squalor Victoria" became a surge of unleashed aggression as Berninger spat the lyrics into the mic, pounding his fists together like a bare-knuckled boxer as the audience raged back at him. And then it was on. The singer took the crowd from rapt with meditative attention on "Afraid of Everyone" and "Lemonworld" to crazed banshees howling "my mind's not right" on "Abel."
There was a lot to look at onstage -- from the badass violinist who was a dead ringer for David Foster Wallace, to the geeky but fly trombonist in Kelly green pants, to the undeniably foxy twin guitarists -- but it's Berninger, decked out like a hipster undertaker in his all-black three-piece suit and tie combo, who is the rock star.
Introducing "Lemonworld," Bryce Dessner, who delivers most of the band's interstitial banter, said, "This song is really hard to play," then clarified, "Well, it's really easy to play, it's hard to make sound good." Berninger took one step up to the mic, smiled slyly and countered, "I think it always sounds good." The crowd cackled. "He only has reverb on his voice in his ear so it's easier!" Dessner said with mock indignance. "Yeah, see I can't hear that," the singer quipped. The crowd clapped so loudly and for so long that they drowned out the beginning of the next song.
Berninger's lyrics have been helping the National's fans sleep at night since he used to mumble them into a borrowed mic during gigs at the now-defunct Luna Lounge back in the late '90s. A decade or so later, the band has become a celebrated icon of cerebral-but-emotive cool, a kind of grown-ups' rock band with soul.
But the assembled crowd still needed Berninger to put them to bed, and he didn't disappoint, closing the set with "Fake Empire" off The Boxer (which begins with the lyric "stay out super late tonight/ picking apples, making pies") and ending the encore with an ecstatic, abandoned rendition of the "Terrible Love" off this year's High Violet. "I can't fall asleep without a little help/ It takes awhile to settle down" Berninger admitted, though it felt more like a forecast for the way the audience would feel for hours after the show. How can you sleep after a rock and roll revival like this?
The National had some help riling up the crowd, courtesy of Suckers, whose smart dance-pop coaxed the audience away from the bars and vegan hot dog stands and up to the front of the stage. But it was the first opener, eccentric singer songwriter Kurt Vile, who made the biggest impression. Vile is one of those precocious young artists who seems to play in sixteen different bands (okay, three: War On Drugs, with the Violators, and solo) and jumps with astounding ease from one style of music (Neil Young-ish Americana) to another (grimy punk rock) without even changing instruments. He looks like an earnest hippie but the kid's got wit -- he titled his debut solo album Childish Prodigy and likes to introduce his more obscure tracks (and they are all obscure) by deadpanning, "This song was a huge hit for us." Keep an eye on this one.
1. Start A War
2. Anyone's Ghost
3. Blood Buzz Ohio
4. Mistaken For Strangers
6. Squalor Victoria
7. Afraid of Everyone
8. Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
11. Apartment Story
2. Mr. November
3. Terrible Love