August 12, 2013 6:40pm PT by Merle Ginsberg
Confession: I'm Addicted to The National
Artists of all stripes have long been concerned with not repeating themselves -- but now they have quantifiable reasons. With hundreds of concerts streamed online and so many live videos on YouTube, what does a highly creative and original band like the National do when they've just played a show at Lollapalooza (their Aug. 3 set was webcast), then a highly anticipated gig at Los Angeles' Greek Theatre (on Saturday, Aug. 10) and one the very next night at Hollywood Forever cemetery?
Diehard fans (like me) probably saw every one. After all, you can’t call the National a "cult band" anymore; they now rank with Wilco and Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons as one of the top indie acts in the music business -- and a consistent draw for the live industry.
I was wondering how the band -- out to support their sixth studio album, Trouble Will Find Me -- could top themselves this time, since what’s so addicting about their live performances is the way lead singer Matt Berninger and his band of brothers (two sets, twins Bryce and Aaron Dessner, both on guitar, plus Bryan Devendorf on drums and Scott Devendorf on bass, supplemented by two horn players and percussionists) commune with the audience, kibitz with the crowd, even make penis jokes.
The guys always go for what’s considered somewhat old fashioned and old school in music these days: actually feeding on their own moods, mixed with the energy of the crowd, to be fully in the moment. That means you never know what kind of “Conversation 16” or “Terrible Love” you’ll get on any given night: big and bright and metallic, or dark and smoky.
The National make the downer ditty pure excruciating delight, like Joy Division and New Order before them. A show by the National is an experience in intimacy: those lyrics (“When I walk into a room, I do not light it up”) are as intimate, doubting and self-conscious as words get outside of Morrissey. It makes pure sense that they named one album Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers.
To put it more bluntly, a night with the National (for me, anyway) is pure dopamine: They write their pain, we experience it and realize we’re not alone in our alienation. It’s not unlike a great date where you talk for hours and hours, unloading all your verbal vomit, and feel somewhat high and giddy afterward, though you’re not sure why.
Matt Berninger knows why. Even many of the song titles are anthems of alienation: “Demons,” “Terrible Love,” “Sorrow,” “Mistaken for Strangers," “I Need My Girl,” ”I’m Afraid of Everyone.” They’re the Romantic poets or pre-Raphaelites of their day: Call it Music for Sad People Who Feel Better Knowing Other People Are Sad. There’s no listening to a National song without getting emotional. They get you every time.
Berninger called them “complaining songs” at the Greek (where Bill Hader and the L.A. Kings’ Matt Greene were spotted), where the National's set was a perfect jewel of a moment in time. The frontman -- willowy, tall and pale in his three-piece suit and wire-rimmed glasses, pacing the stage with a glass of wine in his hand (the only other rock star who could pull that off: maybe Leonard Cohen) -- descended into the audience and walked so far out that the microphone chord nearly strangled people (how’s that for intimacy?). Crescendoing up the heights of "Fake Empire," an anthem if there ever was one (and one of their few political songs, pointing to the outer world, versus their many insular songs), other highlights included “Live in Salt” and “Don’t Swallow the Ca,” from Trouble Will Find Me, and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Sorrow,” off earlier efforts.
The set list was a mix that leaned heavily on the new album but still showered the crowd with plenty of "hits" over two hours. From High Violet: “Conversation 16,” “England,” and “I’m Afraid of Everyone.” For the encore, the band wrapped it up with a beautiful, soft, acoustic interpretation of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," with what seemed like the entire audience (including me -- especially me) singing along. And let me just say that those are complicated, strange, poetic lyrics.
At Hollywood Forever the next night, the sprawling gathering was not unlike Diner Sur L’Herbe, albeit populated by more bearded men with wire-rimmed spectacles (glasses are so passe) and boho brunettes than you can shake a Prius at. The Greek crowd was older, but this crowd was the same people, just 15 years younger: smart, cool, artsy, uncomfortable, self-conscious and geeky all at the same time.
The set was surprisingly similar, since there is an album to promote. But the order moved around slightly, and of course “Anyone's Ghost," absent the night before, was dedicated to the funereal and rather spooky locale. To that end, “I’m Afraid of Everyone” was billed as “an early Halloween” song, and the evening ended again with the same quiet acoustic “Vanderlyle,” but the National was joined by opening act Daughter, who added a female voice that made the song sweeter and more uplifting. (As uplifting as that song can get, anyway. It sounds a little like a dirge -- a very beautiful dirge.)
Was Berninger a little nervous in front of Hollywood Forever’s young crowd? He talked much more, perhaps over-shared (“I thought my fly was open during this entire song,” he blurted before throwing out a couple more penis jokes). Maybe all that wine went to his head, but what it accomplished was, again, an intimacy in a rather large space. Not to mention, he does sound sexy with all those personal ramblings.
Musically, the songs all seemed bigger and broader but lacked the impact from far away, as much of the crowd was. Indeed, the sightlines were challenging without an assist from large video screens. Doesn't the cemetery know we want to see every detail of Berninger’s strange staccato movements, which is always part of the fun?
Both evenings presented very haunting versions of a song from the album Cherry Tree called "About Today," which, I'm embarrassed to say, I had never heard before (nor had my friends) but immediately went home and downloaded. After a helping of Breaking Bad, I listened compulsively to the song many times over. It was the perfect blithely bleak combo. Sure enough, one review of the track called it “the most depressing of a lot of very depressing songs.”
Unique to the National: They make depressing enjoyable -- even beautiful. Could there be a better use of neurosis?
So maybe a band doesn’t have to reinvent themselves or shuffle their library for each venue. Sometimes the venue can reinvent the artist, and in each case, The National seemed to have an excellent sense of where to go.
But then, they know what we’re feeling.