By Gabriel Mathews
The Shrine Auditorium is a large, Schintz-like venue located on USC’s sprawling campus south of Downtown Los Angeles. This means I had to drop a twenty dollar “contribution” to use the University’s incredibly crowded parking structure. That was a letdown.
You know what wasn’t a letdown, though? Mistaken For Strangers, the now in theaters movie about the National made by frontman Matt Berninger’s little brother Tom, which was screened as the opener for this show. I’m no film critic, especially when it comes to documentaries, especially especially when it’s unclear how much of what’s documented was “real.” I will say, though, that the film was utterly hilarious, moving, and endlessly charming. Tom is a real winner of a character, or at least the version of himself he chooses to show us is, and the band comes off as a group of lovable goofballs. The main takeaway point here is that, for those of you who think of the National as a super self serious, dour, no-fun0-zone type of band, check out this movie (Not to mention their hilarious videos for “Conversation 16,” “Graceless,” “Sea Of Love,” Bob’s Burgers… I could go on.) Also, for those of you entirely unfamiliar with the National, check out this movie. And, like, all of their recorded output.
The band took stage about half an hour after the end of the film. Sitting in the I-got-to-Ticketmaster-a-little-late seats, it was plain to see that the National really are a major band, in the sense that I was surrounded by middle-aged moms, finance bros, and everyone in between, and they all knew the words. Six albums in, the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Cincinnati band is finally an American institution.
If there was previously any doubt, their opening run proved that they fully deserve the acclaim. Not many bands could pull off a run like “Don’t Swallow The Cap” followed by “I Should Live In Salt” followed by “Mistaken For Strangers” followed by “Sea Of Love” followed by “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and still play for another unpadded hour. It was clear the National realized this, resting on their laurels a bit with the pristine “Hard To Find” after that fivestar streak.
I couldn’t really see a whole lot from my vantage point, but as far as I could tell, everyone in the band was in fine form. Bryce Dessner pulled a fun stunt during the otherwise sedate “I Need My Girl” by taking a second guitar by the butt and tapping it’s headstock on the ground for a nice clang every once in a while. His twin brother Aaron bounced back and forth between guitar and piano with ease. Matt Berninger’s voice has notably improved over the past few years as he’s quit smoking. His other favorite habit still remains something of a problem though—about halfway through the set, the band started up oldie “All The Wine” to great fanfare, only for Matt to mess up the meter two lines in, throwing a beat between “Big wet bottle in my fist / Big wet rose in my teeth” where this is none. They tried again, but he made the same mistake in the same place, and called the song off. “It wasn’t me, it was the six of them who fucked up, I’m pretty sure,” he quipped, right as the band launched into the triumphant Alligator cut “Abel”. Maybe try just half a bottle of wine per show, Matt?
One of the National’s greatest strengths is subtly upping the ante over the course of a song with slight tonal shifts. Live, it’s ever more clear that drummer Bryan Devendorf is the man most responsible for this trick, his endlessly impressive and expressive playing being as much a focal point as Matt’s singing. His skills shone most bright as he effectively led the band through extended outros on “Squalor Victoria” and “Humiliation.” As Matt wanders the stage moving his hands awkwardly during instrumental passages, you feel it’s Bryan who really takes the reins.
Early on, Matt dedicated “I Should Live In Salt” to his newly-beloved brother — “He thinks this song is about salt. You should know it’s about you, Tom.” He later upped the cuteness factor by dedicating “I Need My Girl” to his wife, Carin Besser (Alligator‘s Karen, though it’s pronounced “Corinne,” who knew?), who helped Tom edit the movie and holds an executive producer credit along with both Berningers. Naturally, the band hit all of their LA references with “Humiliation,” “England,” and the stellar “Pink Rabbits” all eliciting major cheers.
While there are certain songs I would’ve loved to hear and didn’t (“Conversation 16,” guys?), and while their back catalog was criminally underrepresented (two songs from Alligator, four from Boxer, nothing from the first two or Cherry Tree), I can’t say there’s anything I wish they hadn’t played, which is yet another testament to the depth of this band’s oeuvre. The one thing I did really feel the lack of was multi-instrumentalist Padma Newsome, whose violin shredding was the highlight of the show I caught at the Crystal back on the Boxer tour. That and front row seats.
Though the Dessner brothers kept trying to get the crowd clapping along to little avail (we just wanted to listen), the most thrilling bit of crowd interaction outside of Matt’s obligatory aisle walk during “Mr. November” was hinted at during “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” as the band dropped out for a bar or two and I could hear the entire auditorium singing “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees.” The National emphasized this second voice on “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” which has replaced “About Today” as their standard set closer in recent years. This rendition found them totally unplugged, with minimal miking on two acoustic guitars, the horns, and some minimal percussion. I’ve never loved “Vanderlyle,” but this campfire singalong had me rapt. By the end, Matt had flailed too enthusiastically and knocked over his microphone, and all you could hear was the entire Shrine, explaining it all to the geeks.