|Matt Berninger of The National | All photos by Jason Gonulsen|
You’re not that much like me
You should know me better than that
We have different enemies
You should know me better than that
Matt Berninger pauses, and then screams near the end of “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” We’ll be ready for his next outburst — and there will be several — but for now, we’re alarmed.
A veiled explanation comes later. “We write these songs in our bedrooms,” Berninger says to the audience. “And then we get to play them in places like this.”
And this is no ordinary place.
Taylor Rice of Local Natives, who helped open the show with Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit, remarked how he had never had to crane his neck so high to see an audience. The performing floor at Red Rocks is at a relative “ground level;” an artist looks up to see a world of natural beauty between two large pieces of rock that straddle the edges of the venue.
So, yes, a scream is necessary.
The one during “Bloodbuzz Ohio” feels unplanned, but Berninger anticipates his eruptions during “Graceless,” “Squalor Victoria,” “Sea of Love,” and “Humiliation,” the latter which began a four-song encore and had Berninger screaming the word “Humiliation” as if he’d been saving up for this moment for months. He almost always does this near the end of a song.
Bryce Dessner, one of guitarists for The National, the other being his twin brother, Aaron, also acts like Berninger during the opening “I Should Live in Salt.” It’s a relatively quiet song, relying on important and necessary repetition with the line “You should know me better than that” at the heart of the song.
But, out of nowhere, before the final chorus, Dessner steps to the front of the stage and delivers a piercing and wonderful solo that does not go unnoticed. Its beauty is so forceful that the person behind me shrieks. And I can’t express this enough: Dessner’s execution is as perfect as it gets.
|Bryce Dessner during “I Should Live In Salt”|
This is the power of The National: relying on the fine details for emotional effect. Without them, they are just another band, busting ass down the highway, eating Cheez-Its for lunch. With them, they are playing to thousands at Red Rocks. Pay attention.
It helps to have words, too, and Berninger has many. He shows off many of his lyrical toys right away: “I have only two emotions, careful fear and dead devotion” he sings during “Don’t Swallow the Cap;” “I am secretly in love with everyone I grew up with,” during “Demons;” and “Just come and find me / God loves everybody, don’t remind me” during “Graceless.”
Later, during “About Today,” a song from 2004’s Cherry Tree, but made popular by its inclusion at the end of the film, Warrior (whose director was in the audience), Berninger and The National gently build the song with each line: “Today, you were far away / And I didn’t ask you why.” The performance ends with the Dessners taking over with their guitars, picking up the pieces of lyrical wreckage and tossing them into the air, freeing the broken relationship that the song is about. It’s amazing what a song can become live.
We’re taken on this same emotional roller coaster throughout the show. Again, it’s careful, prepared, and each moment relies on the next. This does not suggest that The National aren’t living in the moment. It’s rather to point out that they know exactly what they want to do while they’re in it.
Case in point, the final three songs of the evening. Berninger forces his way up the Red Rocks steps, into the first twenty or so rows of the audience. This is a hike, not a stroll. And he’s yelling: “I’m Mr. November, I won’t fuck us over / I’m Mr. November, I won’t fuck us over.” He saves some energy for the next song, “Terrible Love,” and one final release: “It takes an ocean not to break,” he sings at the end. The Dessner brothers hold their instruments high in all the final noise.
But, this is not the end.
In The National’s world, there is a calm after the storm, like sorting through scattered memories after devastation. They walk to the front of the stage, and while it’s still somewhat amplified, it’s quiet when they sing with the audience, “Vanderlyle, crybaby, cry / Man, it’s all been forgiven / Swans are a-swimmin’.”
Everything that has been built in the previous two hours hinges on this gentle, acoustic moment, like a soft, prolonged scream. Or, maybe it’s a final whimper.
“I’ll explain everything to the geeks,” Berninger sings.
We’re not sure what he means.
But, we still listen.
I Should Live in Salt
Don’t Swallow the Cap
Sea of Love
Afraid of Everyone
I Need My Girl
This Is the Last Time
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks