Back at the Greek, the National’s Older Material Shines

04/30/2014
Photographs by Jason Palodino

Photographs by Jason Palodino

The National’s Sunday evening performance at the Greek Theater began the way that countless National shows have begun over the years: with the slow-burning “Start a War.” But where this show differed from many of those performances is that even at the front of the theater, the crowd was a bit sparse. After quickly selling out a Saturday show, the second day was added to lukewarm interest. It was still mostly full, but when’s the last time you could make a beeline to the stage ten minutes before the National play?

While anthemic crowd-pleasers like “Mistaken for Strangers” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” were as tight as ever, they also felt a bit stale. The formula went roughly like this:

1. A Dessner brother comes to the front of the stage and motions for the audience to start clapping.
2. The audience claps.
3. Scott Devendorf starts drumming.
4. Guitars and horns swell.
5. The band quiets down a bit for Matt Berninger’s verses.
6. After the second chorus, Berninger moves away from the mic, pacing / brooding around while the Dessner brothers move to the lip of the stage, guitars raised high in tremolo-soaked syncopation.
7. Berninger screams a lot into the mic.
8. He paces the stage again as the band brings the song to close.
9. Audience cheers.

No harm, no foul. But it was the slow numbers, the ones that give the band their proper breathing room, that felt more focused and worked better for a smaller, more intimate crowd. It has been almost a year since the release of Trouble Will Find Me, and the band is starting to sneak more deep cuts into their sets. The winding guitar that opens “The Geese of Beverly Road” was pleasantly nuanced, while lyrics like “Serve me the sky with a big slice of lemon” somehow felt cheery in light of Berninger’s recent lyrical output.

“Daughters of the Soho Riots” won for Most Phone Screens in the Air At Once. How lines like “I don’t have any questions / I don’t think it’s gonna rain” can tug at our heartstrings will forever mystify me, but man, people shut the hell up during that one. With the floor tom thudding like a heartbeat behind him, Berninger managed to break down the fourth wall far more than his running-through-the-crowd-with-a-really-long-mic-cord-during-“Mr. November” shtick.

The encore brought the surprise addition of the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, who sat in on the blues standard and frequent Grateful Dead cover “I Know You Rider.” The band effortlessly switched from bombastic bleak rock to bright blues licks on the turn of a dime. Only Berninger seemed a bit out of place, pacing a bit more than usual.

The show ended the way countless National shows have in the past, with an all-acoustic rendition of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” perfectly suited to this intimate crowd. “I’ll explain everything to the geeks,” Berninger cried, slapping his palms on his legs. Didn’t make much sense, but it didn’t need to either.