The sense of expectation in the air is palpable – American indie-rock titans The National descend on Amsterdam tonight, taking over the Heineken Music Hall to unleash the brooding grandeur of recent album ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ (Clash review) on the Dutch capital.
The 5,500 attendees appear enthusiastic, but there’s also trepidation: several question whether the album’s gradually escalating melancholia will translate to the sizable hall’s acoustics; others worry the band is on the point of exhaustion having been touring almost non-stop since June. I wonder if similar fears plague the mind of famously anxious frontman Matt Berninger as he waits to take the stage.
Doubts over the strength of The National’s sound or their vigour wash away as the plaintive chords of ‘I Should Live In Salt’ fall like rain on the venue. Berninger, a man who has made a career from moulding malaise and misery into something wonderful, walks confidently to the microphone. Bespectacled, and sharply dressed in a three-piece suit, he projects the air of a cool, gangly geography teacher.
That is, until he opens his mouth… and his voice flows like molten amber over the Dessner brothers’ sorrowful fretwork. His cavernous baritone is magnificent, sterner live than on record, as if it’s been weathered by time and tide from the demands of the tour.
‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’ is next; throughout the chorus Berninger adopts what will be his de-facto singing stance for the evening: leaning into the mic and clutching it close, as if cradling a lost love. The first track from ‘High Violet’ (slightly questionable Clash review) is ‘Anyone’s Ghost’, where his voice is characterised by a gloriously gloomy, poetic resignation.
Between tracks he wanders the stage anxiously and sips wine; it’s fascinating to see him veer from confident rock god to fretful songster – but that’s all part of the Matt Berninger enigma.
An extended intro to ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ instigates cheers and a bout of handclaps, evidence of its status as a live favourite. It’s during this track that the finely tuned intricacies of the set begin to show – the band is bathed in a perfectly contextual red haze as mammoth projector screens flicker with red patterns mimicking blood platelets.
Impossibly, Berninger and company reforge the track into something even more darkly beautiful live. He sings as if his shoulders are burdened by the collective worries of the room, the aural equivalent of the Greek Titan Atlas.
Though Berninger often performs as if teetering on the edge of an emotional precipice, it’s during ‘Available’ that he breaks down, screeching the outro wildly. Then, as if relieved, he confesses: “That’s the hateful part of the show over.” In response, an audience member asks how his brother is. “He's at home with my wife and daughter. He's baby-sitting now. He'll be fine. He's about to be bigger than Clooney.” He pauses for effect. “He’s physically bigger than Clooney too right now!”
Two songs don’t work as well live as on LP. ‘Pink Rabbits’ and ‘England’, stellar tracks from astronomical albums (‘Trouble Will Find Me’ and ‘High Violet’ respectively), fall into this category. The former sounds like a watered-down, speeded-up shimmy; the latter arrives devoid of the soul that sees it burn so brightly on record. Fortunately, the set has been impeccably sequenced, and the one-two punch of ‘Graceless’ into ‘Fake Empire’ provides a counter-redeeming edge to the night’s double-misstep.
The inevitable encore opens with the standout track from 2004’s ‘Cherry Tree’ EP, ‘About Today’. Then events take a wild turn after drummer Bryan Devendorf discharges a blistering barrage of percussion to announce ‘Alligator’ favourite ‘Mr November’. Berninger dives, messiah-like, into the crowd, which parts like the Red Sea as he walks triumphantly through them, yelping and yowling every word, before appearing minutes later standing – then crawling – along the bar.
Soaked in sweat with tears stinging his eyes, he shrieks the chorus as the crowd swells around him, his very own collective of booze-sodden disciples: “I won’t f*ck us over! I’m Mr November!” He inexplicably manages to carry a pint of lager back to the stage untouched. Throwing it in the air, it crashes to the ground as the track’s final chords die away like fading embers.
They finish with ‘Terrible Love’ – how could they not? Its title, its lyrics, it themes – they’re all illustrative of the contradictory duality at the heart of The National. Tonight, Berninger is introvert and extrovert, supergeek and superstar, manic depressive and life-and-soul: all at the same time. The National's live performance scorches because – seemingly wracked by insecurity and wholly unsure of what he wants to be – Matt Berninger becomes everything, all at once.
Their songs may possess an innately intimate quality but it does not mean the performance is an easy listen. It’s an emotionally draining night, as much for the audience as it is for the frontman, but there’s a shared sense of catharsis as we walk away from the empty stage, a feeling that we just witnessed something extraordinary. The National just smashed Amsterdam to pieces; they understand, better than anyone else, the science to walking through windows...
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Words: Benji Taylor
Photos: Tassos Papazoglou
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