The National: Fury & Squalor
One night at the Moody down, two to come
By Doug Freeman, 12:47PM, Tue. Apr. 22
“People love to sing about being alone together,” posited Matt Berninger before the National’s Austin City Limits Music Festival appearance last year. The collective chorus rising through the Moody Theater Monday night, the sold-out opening of a three-day stand for the band, echoed the sentiment.
The Brooklyn-based quintet, performing as a sevenpiece with horns, delivers its melancholic ballads live with a tightly controlled spark of tension and release, and openers Warpaint set the stage with their own brand of tightly-wound-to-unraveling jams. The Los Angeles quartet, working behind its eponymous sophomore LP, unloaded a contortion of boiling, psychedelic guitar weaving atop delirious rhythms.
The fierce female foursome launched melodically with “Bees” from 2010 debut The Fool and the tantric moan of “Love is to Die” before ripping into the maelstrom of “Undertow.” Their comfortable, joking banter between songs valved the jarring cuts as guitar riffs re-routed in spectacular, unexpected turns, all held together by Jenny Lee Lindberg’s side-stepping bass and Stella Mozgawa’s propulsion behind the kit, especially on the danceable “Disco//very” and closing pummel of “Elephant.”
The National emerged aggressive and aloof, jumpstarting with “Sea of Love” and “I Should Live in Salt” from last year’s standout LP Trouble Will Find Me, before diving into the rapid mantra and horn-laced call of Boxer’s “Mistaken for Strangers” and settling into the warm ache of “Sorrow.” Berninger stalked the stage in restless anxiety, clutching at his hair and leaning heavily hunched into the microphone as he wound himself tighter and tighter to explode, flanked on either side by Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s guitar, and anchored by Scott and Bryan Devendorf’s rhythm section.
The dull roar opening “Bloodbuzz Ohio” rose the crowd in immediate recognition, yet the group kept the song reigned in and continued the build through newer material “Don’t Swallow the Cap” and the piano-led “Hard to Find” as well as High Violet’s “Afraid of Everyone” and an exquisitely pained “Conversation 16.” The first cathartic swell didn’t break until 10 songs in, with the uproar of “Squalor Victoria,” which reset the performance as Berninger smashed the mic stand into the stage and stormed manically from end to end.
That release is Berninger’s forte, but it’s the band and frontman’s build to it that makes the National beloved and their shows powerful enough to carry three nights in one of Austin’s largest venues. The singer’s raw in performance, peeling back a vulnerability and insecurity in open wounds. He draws the crowd into this naked susceptibility so that the relief when the emotion finally shatters rivets and razes the entire audience.
Yet even after the fury of “Squalor Victoria,” the band tuned back down by dropping into “I Need My Girl” and “This is the Last Time.” Exhuming “Ada” from Boxer with a dedication to Sufjan Steven for his piano playing on the track, the band playfully closed the song with a horn burst of his “Chicago.” They followed with a crash into the temperamental “Abel,” reaching back to 2005’s Alligator, and the bowed-guitar and ambient hum of “Slow Show.”
“Pink Rabbits” commenced the close, leading into the brutal loss and yearning of “England” and driving “Graceless” before ending on the beautifully beaten “About Today” countered with the burst of “Fake Empire.”
The National’s hallmark encore kept the floor packed and the band re-emerged with “Runaway.” As Berninger launched himself into the crowd for “Mr. November,” he was swept and tossed in a tide of fans. “Terrible Love” provided an equally cathartic capstone, with the frontman teetering on the barricade as fans and security held him aloft and then crumpling into a ball on the stage.
Closing with an acoustic “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” the band stepped out front and Berninger turned the mic to the audience, leading a singalong that leaned into every word with a passion to match the show just given. After all, people love to sing about being alone together.
ACL Live at the Moody Theater set-list, 4.21.14
“Sea of Love ”“I Should Live in Salt” “Mistaken for Strangers ” “Sorrow ” “Bloodbuzz Ohio” “Don’t Swallow the Cap ” “Hard to Find ” “Afraid of Everyone” “Conversation 16” “Squalor Victoria” “I Need My Girl” “This Is the Last Time” “Ada” “Abel” “Slow Show ” “Pink Rabbits” “England” “Graceless” “About Today” “ Fake Empire”
“ Runaway”“ Mr. November ” “Terrible Love ” “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”