It took about four songs for The National to get warmed up at their show last night (March 11) at Brooklyn’s Bell House. And it wasn’t for lack of professionalism, abundance of material or experience: the band simply hasn’t played a club-sized show in a really long time, and for a hometown crowd of friends and locals, too.
The 350-cap, sold-out show boasted of die-hards primed for the rock outfit to preview new material from forthcoming “High Violet” and in at least that regard, the band delivered. The National’s core of frontman Matt Berninger, Dessner brothers Aaron and Bryce and Brothers Devendorf Bryan and Scott were joined by four additional contributors, with all but Bryan and Berninger switching instruments after nearly every track, brass, keys, synths, violin and percussion all thrown into the mix.
The 18-song set kick off with a new mid-tempo rocker, the delightfully macabre-titled track “Bloodbuzz, OH” (the band originally hails from the Midwestern state). Another newbie followed, “Sorrow,” which Berninger, in his plainly delivered baritone, reports, “I don’t wanna get over you,” as piano and electric riffs sparkled and extinguished behind him, band members taking turns on some strong post-chorus “ohs.”
Lying half the time about the new song titles, Berninger uncomfortably smiled between songs “Ghost” (or “Anyone’s Ghost")– “I don’t want to be your ghost/I don’t want to be anyone’s ghost” -- and ominous and broken-sounding “Little Faith” (which he called “Little Blizzard”). But it wasn’t until after “Start a War” from “Boxer” and “Secret Meeting” from “Alligator” that the group found its footing and displayed their true confidence in the new material.
With backup vocals that floated in as specters, Berninger, black-clad, let his vocals rise with vulnerability and fear with the title lyrics to “Afraid of Everyone,” ultimately disintegrating in a swirl of marching drums. “Lemonworld” was equally affecting, though veering away from the band’s tendency toward whimper to bang by riding out a slow heat that never really boils over.
After another pair of “Boxer” songs “Slow Show” and “Apartment Story,” both on which Berninger’s wife helped him write lyrics, The National went into “Runaway,” with only a few stanzas of lyrics recycled throughout, a murmuring, even-keeled, head-swaying saddie capped by the words “We’ve got another thing coming undone.”
The band must know that its “Conversation 16” is the real, new showstopper, because they sure as hell played it that way, with Aaron tackling that penchant hollow-body sound that’s featured in songs like “Secret Meeting,” a constant chug from the rhythm section until the satisfying major key of the chorus, a breath, then a floor stomping bridge with a high note cry. It bore into the singer’s range, pushing him to registers fans aren’t used to hearing, and he owned it even when he tripped.
“Abel” starting bringing down the house as usual, before there was a song that appears to be called “England” which is cinematic in length and sound, clocking in over 5:30 and boasts a killer trombone, trumpet and violin arrangement. Bryan barely has to do more than lay on the kick and the toms. “Fake Empire” closed out the set before the encore.
Bryce put a bow to his guitar for waltz-like “Vanderlyle Cry Baby,” which takes its sweet time for the payoff. “Mr. November” preceded “Terrible Love,” which appears to be the opening track to “High Violet” and the first single, considering its “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” debut earlier this week. They killed it. It’ is a pulsing, desperate anthem of noise and phenomenal, full backing, giving way to distortion and a galloping drum line.
Check out the video of that song below.
Bryce Dessner told me after the show that the band was nervous, but, with his own uneasy smile, said it was the most fun they’d had in a while playing.
Considering the show’s size and the devotional excitement behind it, it wouldn’t have been a bad idea for the band to dig deeper into their catalog for some unexpected treats, namely tracks from their anxious, emotional 2003 album “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers.” But you can’t not play the hits, and it’d take some time to re-arrange those sparser tunes for a full nine-strong band, when already so much is on the plate.
But The National has had at least a few hours to revise: they play again at the Bell House tonight before heading out on tour again at the end of the month.
“High Violet” is due May 11 via 4AD.