The National Documentary, Show Take Us Behind the Curtain: Concert Review

Chris Godley
The audience joins in on closing 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks."
The New York rock band created a meta concert experience by performing after a movie about themselves, shifting the dynamic between fan and artist.

The New York rock band created a meta concert experience by performing after a movie about themselves, shifting the dynamic between fan and artist.

If a band’s opening act is a film about them, how does that alter the dynamic of that band’s live performance? That’s the question both posed and answered by The National last evening at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium, which played host to the theatrical premiere of the New York indie rock band’s documentary Mistaken for Strangers before a 90-minute concert from the musicians themselves.

The film, which premiered last year at TriBeCa, was made by frontman Matt Berninger’s brother Tom, who transforms a behind-the-scenes view of the group on tour into a post-modern meditation on creativity itself as he grapples to complete the very work the audience is watching. It exposes unexpected aspects of the musicians, particularly Matt, who is revealed to deal with onstage issues with brash anger offstage. At one point in the film, the singer’s wife tells Tom that Matt has to go into a “zone” in order to be the front man of this band.

It’s impossible then, 30 minutes later, to ignore these revelations when the band arrives onstage, heralded by live video of them making their way up from the Shrine dressing rooms, red cups of alcohol in hand. An ordinary show involves a metaphorical curtain, one that shrouds an artist in a sort of mystery, disconnecting their stage persona with their quotidian existence. A documentary, especially one that feels as un-staged as this one, draws back that curtain to a certain degree so the immediate juxtaposition of The National with themselves created a strange and unusual effect.

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Midway into the set, the musicians slid from “This Is the Last Time” into “All the Wine,” a track from 2003’s The Black Sessions. Something was amiss. “Stop!” Matt called to the band. “I have no idea where you are.” As the other musicians obeyed, he added, seemingly jokingly, “I’m pretty sure all six of them f**ked up.” The band began the song again, and again, something was amiss. “Just skip it!” Matt said. “I had no idea what you guys were doing that whole time. What song were you playing?”

The frustration of the song’s failure channeled itself into “Abel,” during which Matt aggressively howled and screamed the lyrics into the microphone, prowling the stage with fervor. Images of the film arose in the minds of the fans, of Matt, upset about a performance that didn’t go as planned, hurling a wardrobe rack across a backstage room. Was this moment onstage a reflection of that one? Were we seeing an event that might precede a moment like that in real time?

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The correlations continued as the show went on (“All the Wine” was the otherwise-impressive set’s only real hiccup). The brothers’ relationship was omnipresent, augmented by Tom’s presence at the show. Before launching into “I Should Live in Salt,” from last year’s Trouble Will Find Me, Matt thanked his brother for making the film and noted his inspiration on The National’s latest effort. “My brother was living with me,” he told the crowd about making the album. “As you just saw, he was with us a lot. This song was inspired by my brother. Tom think it’s about salt.” He scoured the room for his brother, adding to Tom, “But it’s more about you than it is about salt.”

The National, aided by hypnotic and abstract video projections, uncovered a sizable amount of material, ranging from their early efforts to Trouble Will Find Me, continually emanating significant emotive expression regardless of a particular song’s tone. “England” earned the greatest cheers, both for its line “I'm in a Los Angeles cathedral” and for Matt’s hauntingly effective delivery. As they played, the band members looked simultaneously grander and farther away than usual, perhaps because we had just seen them up close and ordinary, the camera zoomed in on their faces in daylight and under florescent lamps. The new understanding earned from Mistaken for Strangers, whether that reflects reality or merely an edited, scripted version of it, distinctly altered the perception of the musicians and their music.

During the four-song encore, the band dove into fan favorite “Mr. November.” A warped image of the audience was projected on the video screen, fuzzy and discolored. We watched ourselves watching the band, arms cheering in the air, heads nodding to the beat, and the meta-aesthetic of the whole thing was strikingly apparent. As if to further underscore that idea, The National followed with “Terrible Love,” the song that concludes Mistaken for Strangers. In the film, it is the only full performance of a track we see. Matt leaps from the stage, microphone in hand, and is trailed through the crowd by Tom, who carries the mic cable. The band mimicked that performance last evening, with Tom running onstage to ceremoniously hold Matt’s microphone cable as he climbed across the Shrine’s seats, repeatedly howling the chorus, “It takes an ocean not to break.”

That would be apt punctuation to a show that spent much of the night looking at itself in a mirror, seemingly intentionally. But for The National, a better ending was moving beyond the filmic correlation and into the newly uncovered connection between the viewer and the artist, no longer separated by a curtain. As if to acknowledge the more intimate relationship forged during last night’s experience, the band concluded with an acoustic rendition of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” from 2010’s High Violet, the album they were touring on when Mistaken for Strangers was shot. Matt sang half the number into his microphone, stripping the track down to the lyrics itself, then dropped the mic on the stage floor and allowed the fans to carry the song to its pinnacle. “Thank you guys,” he said simply after the chorus had faded. “And thank you Tom for a great movie.”

Set List:

Don’t Swallow the Cap
I Should Live In Salt
Mistaken for Strangers
Blood Buzz
Sea of Love
Hard to Find
Afraid of Everyone
Squalor Victoria
I Need My Girl
This Is the Last Time
All the Wine
Slow Show
Pink Rabbits
Fake Empire
Mr. November
Terrible Love
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks