The National mixes bombast with subtlety during marathon Riverside Theater show
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There’s not a lot of middle ground when it comes to The National. Fans of the band rally behind singer Matt Berninger’s maudlin, cryptic lyrics and alternately calm and agitated stage presence; detractors don’t buy into it. Behind the vague romantic mythology and distinctive baritone is a band composed of four dudes who could be almost any four dudes—only drummer Bryan Devendorf has any sort of individual instrumental finesse, but even his rapid-fire tom and snare patterns are pretty formulaic, contributing to a resounding sameness across the band’s many big-swell anthems. Monday night’s sold-out Riverside Theater show wasn’t intended to win new fans, though. It was a showcase for all of Berninger’s strengths and/or gimmicks, geared towards pleasing the diehards who roared their approval over and over (while remaining politely seated) throughout the marathon performance.
It takes guts to get three of your most well known songs out of the way at the very beginning of a show, but the instant impact of “I Should Live In Salt,” “Don’t Swallow The Cap,” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” was like a shot of adrenaline to the crowd. The addition of a two-man horn section for this tour was instantly remarkable, particularly revitalizing a new arrangement of “Bloodbuzz” that remained a highlight of the show. In fact, all of the High Violet tracks were predictably powerful and seemed to have evolved the most through the live process.
The band’s new Trouble Will Find Me is by far its most stylistically diverse album to date, positively subdued compared to its predecessors. The new songs haven’t changed much since the studio, but songs like “Demons,” “I Need My Girl,” and “Pink Rabbits” provided much-needed contrast to the bombastic wall-of-sound exercises. Despite Berninger’s claim that “I always fuck it up,” a perfect rendition of the rarely performed “Slipped” was a gorgeous example of the band’s increasingly effective subtlety.
Still, after feeding the crowd’s hunger for intensity, a somewhat monotonous stretch in the middle of the set (focusing on tracks from 2005’s underwhelming Alligator) served to dull the senses, although Berninger’s more assured vocal prowess did make “Abel” much less awkward than its recorded version. But the preponderance of shoegaze-by-numbers made the show feel much longer than it needed to; the band could’ve cut out a quarter of the songs and put on a much tighter, more impressive show. Berninger is the only real variable, and even his act is nearly identical show to show. He fidgeted and paced the stage when he wasn't singing while seeming perfectly at ease any time he was at the mic, and there was plenty of wine-sipping, mic-stand-tossing, screaming, and the requisite crowd-surf climax. But by the time “England” rolled out, it was basically nonstop energy until the end of the night, right down to the crowd-sung “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” finale. Berninger continues to hone his ability to captivate through humility and a seemingly unhinged need to emote, carrying an entire band with his personality and rendering the earnestness of his act a moot point.