By Paul Vranesh
A National concert has the potential to be marred in musical one-upmanship. The unironic characterizations of indie music fans found in James Murphy’s lyrics to Losing My Edge could run rampant and unchecked. This is The National, after all – Brooklyn darlings whose biting lyrics, humbling musicality, and NYC indie cred demand adoration and respect amongst all those in-the-know. These qualities also inspire a vicious sense of appropriation and “where were you when Alligator dropped” contention. As an unabashed devotee to all things National, I tried to imagine what I would find in the pit of the St. Augustine Amphitheatre on May 5th.
I did not find The National. The National found me, the moment I heard lead singer Matt Berninger’s morose baritone delivering the lyrics that, somewhat regrettably, spoke so bluntly to my experiences up to that point. The original albums, the foundation for this decade-plus fascination, do not sit squarely in any one genre. They drift from gritty Americana to horn-and-string-laden exercises in disdainful self-observation. All along the way, The National poke and prod the upper-middleclass experience until it becomes the shell of itself, a specter haunting the room(s) of gentrified lofts and summer homes. The music has evolved, sure; the band’s newer albums have become more subtle and introspective. But this is The National, after all. The band remains assuredly original, and this evolution finds the band in full command of their powers of lyrical candor and musical mastery.
Memories swirled as I entered the pit for that May 5th show. Standing squarely in the center of the space, I observed those around me with trepidation. Surely, there would be internet seekers, kids coming up from behind, whose footsteps I would hear when they get on the decks…and then…there weren’t. There was chatter in the pit: stories of past shows, lists of cities and venues; admittedly, there was commonality of thought in the faces of these storytellers as they doggedly tabulated the shows they had seen. But this was not Rock ‘n Roll brinksmanship. This was a community, open to stories of the Brooklyn band that had drawn them to St. Augustine that evening, a band who will continue to draw them out to show after show. This, a band that screams “so sorry but the motorcade will have to go around me this time,” daring all those in attendance to share in the absurd notion while exclaiming in a singular voice “God is on my side; I’m the child bride.” This was The National after all, and this assembly grew together as one voice, one event as the band took to the stage.
And this is the story of the show. Amid a wash of Emotional Rescue-era lights, glitz, and static, the band delivers. Matt Berninger, the brothers Dessner and Devendorf, and friends who had played on several albums with the band take to the stage and commence with a powerful 90-minute-plus performance. A pair of drum kits, joined by a relentless bass, drive the music forward while Matt Berninger twists and shouts in bursts of sanguine release before settling back into a sallow, intimate delivery. Piano and guitar weave together, trading focus from time to time with masterful confidence. Horns and electronics lift the band to a dreamlike splendor without aggrandizing.
Old songs and new blend seamlessly thanks to the care and attention afforded to each moment by the group. The band does not emphasize the newer music at the expense of the classics; the band speaks to us with every word, every beat, and every note, rendering past and present indistinguishable. This is The National, after all.
As the show reaches its apex, several crew members (and blindingly exuberant concert-goers) help shepherd Matt’s infinite microphone cable through the winding expanse of the Amphitheatre’s middle sections as he makes his way along the upper reaches of the crowd. As in shows past, Berninger directly engages as many concertgoers as he can. During a dramatic unplugged encore of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, one recognizes that this is for the fans, not for “The Fans”; the band cares, the band recognizes, and the band embraces. The National plays for her fans, for those attending their first National show, and their twelfth. And they know full well that as the chorus swells, and roar of the crowd overtakes the music from the stage, “I’ll explain everything to the geeks” takes on a whole new meaning.
This is The National, after all.