Since forming in 1999, The National have managed to forge their own path in indie rock, developing a loyal following of fans more interested in the consistently high quality of their albums and live performances rather than the spins they garner on mainstream radio. They have also managed to keep a steady pace, releasing a new album every two or three years while touring and exploring numerous side projects. The National’s seventh full-length, Sleep Well Beast, finds the band venturing into more electronic, textural territory, and on Monday, November 27th they came to Portland for a sold out show at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in support of it.
This is the Kit is the project of British musician Kate Stables. She was a fitting opener considering her previous collaborations with The National’s Aaron Dessner. The band’s set was short and sweet, with Stables offering whimsical lyrics and Joni Mitchell-like vocals over a soundtrack of indie folk and garage rock strumming. Most of the songs came from the band’s new album Moonshine Freeze, culminating with “Hotter Colder”, a catchy number that shined with flourishes of Malian style guitar.
Before The National took the stage, four massive light screens were suspended above it, displaying imagery and design from Sleep Well Beast while in the middle a clock ticked slowly towards the thirty-minute mark. When the moment came, Bob Dylan’s “Most of the Time” played and the screens projected a live feed of the band members before they took the stage. The huge lighting display seemed more fitting for an arena than a large theater, but nobody was complaining, as they would make for one hell of a light show while also reflecting the electronic array of sounds the band taps into with Sleep Well Beast. Indeed, new songs would make up much of the set beginning with the atmospheric beat and solemn piano of “Nobody Else Will Be There.” Newer songs would hit all the right notes with the Portland crowd, rising up like a wave during the jagged guitar and triumphant chorus of “The System Only Dreams In Darkness” and savoring the moody soundscapes and swelling musical peaks of “Guilty Party” and “Born to Beg”. With the new songs and older favorites like “Don’t Swallow the Cap” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, the band chugged along full throttle, with Aaron Dessner delivering subtly busy guitar work that soared over everything but Matt Berninger’s vocals. And it was those two songs that finally pulled the audience from their seats and kept them on their feet for the rest of the night.
Part of what makes The National such powerful performers is their ability to function cohesively as a unit while also letting each member shine. The Dessner brothers propelled with their expressive guitar and piano work while the other members layered on brass and heavy drumbeats. At the center of the storm was Berninger, brooding about the stage and bemoaning his lyrics with deep arid vocals that floated over the instrumentals. As the performance wore on, the singer resembled a hip and cynical college professor as he described songs with simple words: “somber material, geopolitical issues…thanks everybody”. On songs like “Turtleneck” – with its frenetic New Wave punk energy – “Slow Show” and “Day I Die”, Berninger writhed around and careened back and forth across the stage in between howling out with raw emotion.
Though longtime favorites like “Fake Empire” and “Terrible Love” would lead to predictable sing-a-longs, the beauty of The National’s set was in its unpredictability. In Portland, the band drew from across their catalogue, creating a setlist that, while anchored by new material, satisfied their fans and never broke stride. By the time the show culminated with Berninger handing off his bottle of booze to a fan as if it were a baton, it was clear The National are still very much in love with performing.
Nobody Else Will Be There
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
Walk It Back
I Should Live in Salt
Don’t Swallow the Cap
Born to Beg
I Need My Girl
This is the Last Time
I’ll Still Destroy You
Carin at the Liquor Store
Day I Die
Photo by Bella Blasko