June 5th, 2013
Guest Writer: Ed Koller
I saw The National live for the first time at All PointsWest in 2009. They played in the afternoon as a light rain came down on a cool, grey, summer day. I walked easily through the thin crowd to where it tightened up about 4 people deep from the front. It was actually the perfect pairing for The National’s set. I closed my eyes as they played and their baritone and barbiturate sound made my skin feel numb to the rain.
Already critically acclaimed, they’ve absolutely sky-rocketed in popularity since. This band is well-deserving of drawing a crowd that can fill an arena. Unfortunately their sound doesn’t translate well to a venue that large. The Barclays Center in Brooklyn, with its Nets jerseys hanging from the rafters is a sterile, hollowed out place. I sat in the back right corner about 30 rows up with my brother and our wives and settled in with our first round of $10 Stellas.
The National took the stage with the loudest applause they would hear for the rest of the night. All band members were set up near the front of the stage, the drum kit set back just right of center. The band is also traveling with a horn section that stood on a riser just over lead singer, Matt Berninger’s shoulder. A digital screen that ran the length of the stage provided the backdrop of live video feeds mixed with some pre-recorded footage.
They opened with Don’t Swallow the Cap, one of my favorites off the new album. It was immediately clear that Matt’s baritone was going to struggle to carry in the mix. The sound was muddied, swallowing up all the bass and midrange, with the highs of the drum kit and guitars occasionally hissing out of the top range. I thought it might be a result of where we were seated, but as I scanned the crowd and the general admission pit, I saw a sea of motionless heads, as if everyone was leaning in slightly to hear the intricacies as the band pushed through Bloodbuzz Ohio, Mistaken for Strangers, Out to Sea, Sorrow and Demons.
Chatter between songs had them expressing how they were happy to be back home in Brooklyn. And we all had a good chuckle when lead singer Matt Berninger said “It’s nice to be back at Barclay’s where it all began” (it just opened in Sept. 2012).
The concert never transported me like it did at All Points West even as they offered a healthy amount of songs. Most people off the floor remained seated the entire show and it looked as if people were absorbing the music with quiet consideration. Possibly sensing this, Matt did try to make it more of a rock concert by not singing but shrieking out the chorus of Abel and other tracks that feature his upper register.
They pulled Annie Clark (St. Vincent) out of the wings sporting a new look of blond curls to perform This Is the Last Time and that genuinely surprised and energized the crowd. Unfortunately this number went unrehearsed or they missed a chance to sound check together. She approached the mic for the chorus and unfortunately I didn’t hear her at all. My brother and I said how unfortunate it was to not take advantage of her awesome guitar play or have her sing a verse or the chorus alone.
When the band played Mr. November during the encore, Matt took a wired mic into the crowd as a bouncer fed the line out. He quickly got at least 50 yards deep and was easy to track as cellphone flashes keep a small, strobing spotlight trained on him. It was probably the last of the five-song encore that left the best impression on me. After a concise introduction of “just one more thing” the band went into an acoustic version of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks. I think it was the fact that it was dead quiet and Matt’s voice wasn’t competing with instrumentation that they were finally able to shrink the arena into an intimate space. And it’s there that their music thrives.