The Fox Theater
May 26, 2010
Better than: High Violet, a flawed, delicate, frustrating, gorgeous, boring album.
Matt Berninger does not want to look at the audience. Matt Berninger looks scared. Matt Berninger must swill -- no, chug -- wine (white wine in a little stemmed glass) between songs, just to maintain his will to stand in front of his adorers. His eyelids are almost always closed. When they open, the frontman of The National flashes his retinas straight at the top and back of the sold-out room, where fans are standing and cheering, and the sight seems to make him more shy. After briefly looking, Matt Berninger retreats to the platform onstage where his drummer sits and where his wine is kept. And this is how Matt Berninger, formerly a successful graphic design pro, manages to make himself perform with his now-unbelievably popular rock band.
While their singer drinks himself out of stage fright, the other members of The National stand, unflustered, and play their instruments with supreme competence. They look sympathetically at their singer. At one point, just after Matt Berninger has poured himself another glass of wine, a guitar tech hands the singer a guitar. Matt does not play guitar, so he moves to pass it to the nearest guitarist. The guitarist grins mischievously -- this is not his guitar. So Matt, whose wine bottle now looks mostly transparent, will be the subject of a laugh between the guitarist and the audience. He stumbles backstage with his wine until the joke is over.
The thirtysomething band members are dressed like wealthy, young high-tech entrepreneurs, with collared shirts, beards and a few ties. Matt arrives dapperly in a trim vest and tailored coat. Their image is cool competence. It is a restraint, bordering on fearfulness, that hardly belies any creative fury. It is not how you expect the band that sold the third-most albums in America last week to look.
But there is fury in this band, under the fine clothes and frightened glances, and it made The National's show last night in Oakland pretty much involuntarily entrancing. Even for those of us who find their mix of fear and competence often overwrought and sometimes just dull. Their fury stormed the Fox when, for once, Matt Berninger strode to the front of his stage and stared -- straight-up glared, eyelids all the way open -- at his audience, as the instrumentalists onstage suddenly pummeled into a fiery rendition of "Apartment Story." He'd had a lot of wine to help him by that point, and Matt Berninger had the crowd as well to scream along to the song's undeniable chorus-climax: "We'll stay inside till somebody finds us/ Do whatever the TV tells us..." for one of the night's highest moments. Matt, when fired up, clamped his eyelids shut, crammed his face against the mic and slammed its stand around the stage, knocking the whole thing (and nearly himself) over several times. One does not often see neck veins popping out of such an elegant collar.
Early in the set, immaculate versions of new songs like "Bloodbuzz Ohio" -- which is as good as anything The National has penned -- and "Afraid of Everyone" left the crowd swooning. A band this neurotically professional would bother to bring a full complement of instrumentalists on tour, and the presence of wild-haired Australian Padma Newsome on violin, viola and multiple keyboards added a depth that doesn't come through enough on High Violet. "England" opened luxuriantly with swimming piano chords and Newsome's tender viola before the trumpet -- yeah, there was a brass section, too -- entered and built the song up to its yearning climax.
But too many National songs start off with some soupy serenity and escalate with articulate drums to a zenith that's either tentative or just morose. And those are the better ones. The lesser tunes from High Violet, like "Sorrow," sit there like an ill-advised meal in your stomach, fizzling uncomfortably until you manage to stop paying attention. Next to the anthemic "Fake Empire" and the ominous "Mistaken For Strangers," from 2007's Boxer, they seem flat and maudlin. Yet one of my least favorite new ones moved me last night: "Terrible Love," the finale, which sounded like a slow dance across hellfire when the band poured every remaining drop of passion into it. Drunk Matt Berninger pounded his mic stand into the stage in red-faced fury, shaking as the room shouted along: "It's a terrible love that I'm walking with spiders." The singer's voice was shot by then -- a concluding embarrassment for the shy one -- so at the big end, Matt Berninger left quickly. He backed away from what remained of the mic stand, gave a doe-eyed nod to the cheering masses, and staggered offstage with one last, half-hearted wave of the wine glass. The relief is only temporary: He'll have to bear it all again at the Fox tonight.
Opener Ramona Falls earned some new fans last night. Headmaster Brent Knopf, known for his work with Menomena, brought boyish charm and an expert voice to his band's meandering alt-folk. Energetic drummer Paul Alcott waved his crazy 'fro around and often wouldn't sit down to bang out the band's shifting time signatures. "It is our intention this evening to rock the fuck out," Alcott announced at the start of Ramona Falls' second song. They did.