The National, Massey Hall, Toronto, ON- 4/11
Photo by Stephen Bloch
As concertgoers, it can be easy to forget that the people performing for our pleasure are in fact at work. While most of us arise for our morning coffee and commute, musicians are traveling between cities – catching their winks on tour buses and in strange hotels. While we count down the final moments of our nine-to-five obligations, they’re loading into a new venue and sound-checking before doing a few interviews. By the time we arrive for the show, ready to cut loose and relax, they’re just amping up for the most important part of their job. Some musicians approach this cycle with their own enjoyment in mind, while some appear to take perfectionism to an almost masochistic level. Striking a fine balance in their touring priorities, are the members of The National.
A very special three night run at Toronto’s historic Massey Hall, for which tickets were in crazy high demand, came to an end last Friday. Going about their business in the professional manner befitting the bands outward identity, Matt Berninger and his indie-hero chums rode their dependable program to a third straight night of success, while mixing in a few rarities as a treat. The National’s style – brooding, mature, and ready to erupt – took some time to fully engage the audience, as the slow burn of the first few tunes settled everyone in. Once “Bloodbuzz Ohio” appeared four songs into the set, Berninger was well on his way to the optimal wine buzz that he typically chases, and the capacity crowd was hanging on his every word.
The augmentation of trumpet and trombone, relayed by a pair of supporting players who pulled double duty on keyboards, brought a fullness to the overall sound – “Don’t Swallow The Cap” and “Demons” providing early highlights. Like the majority of popular live acts, The National could be seen going through the prescribed motions of individual songs without the chance for much variation. As such, Berninger’s repeated smacking of his forehead with his own microphone, or his maniacal screams that came during cacophonous peaks, felt visceral without exuding much ingenuity. Unlike acts of the Radiohead or Arcade Fire pedigree, whose routines are so sound and free of force as to appear purely natural every night, The National relied on playing up the preconceived emotion of each song – Berninger’s increasing inebriation an all too necessary tool in delivering him to a place of lowered inhibition and established frenzy.
Calculated as it may have been, the set remained strong. Bryan Devendorf’s authoritative drum beat on “Squalor Victoria” built to explosive heights, while Berninger unleashed the madman within. Older selections “All The Wine” (played by request) and “Cardinal Song” (played to perfection) gave the hardcores something to gush over, and the haunting beauty of “Pink Rabbits” keyed the final stretch of powerful tunes. Berninger climbed on monitors and solicited vocal help from some eager audience members during an interactive take on “Graceless”, and the inventive end sequence of “About Today” gave way to the set-closing “Fake Empire” – a tried and true capper.
Saving the loudest for last, Berninger descended into the crowd and traversed seat-backs and aisles in an animated version of perennial shot-stopper “Mr. November”, completely shedding his worldly-professor persona for a few brief/brilliant moments. Also occupying the encore slot was a visit from local folkie Hayden on “Terrible Love”, and – perhaps the sweetest portion of the night – the unamplified group singalong on “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, which shrunk the majestic theater down to intimate size and warmed the hearts of all those who joined in. Ever the consummate professional, Berninger made his entire audience feel special in the waning seconds, while also giving credence to his label reps hanging in the wings. While perhaps light on surprises, the performance delivered on all reasonable expectations. When it’s time to punch the clock, The National does its job well.