On Friday, April 18, The National closed a four-night residency at The Chicago Theater. A sold-out crowd, buzzing with anticipation, packed the beautiful old venue, and when The National took the stage, they kicked down the doors like a SWAT team with "Sea of Love," a true standout from their latest album Trouble Will Find Me.
That explosive beginning was cause for safety belts in the seats, because we knew this was going to be one hell of a ride. And the band did not disappoint in a 90-minute set that spanned The National's musical catalog.
Bryan Devendorf powered his bandmates through each song with precision drumming, while brother Scott pounded on his bass, hopping and bouncing in place like an excited dog on a tight leash connected to his amp. Bryce and Aaron Dessner simply electrified the air of the venerable room with a double-guitar assault that could only be pulled off by twins.
Among this orchestration was a stalking, pacing caged animal. Spitting. Yelling. Cranking his fists together. His anchor, a microphone stand that he treated as a friend, exuding hypnotic ("I Need My Girl," "Fake Empire") and maniacal outbursts, most notably in "Squalor Victoria." The rage and angst coming from Matt Berninger's voice during Squalor was so loud, so oppressive, I was sure the facade of the theater would crumble; I fully expected to open the morning paper to find that the band had been banned in Illinois.
Through the night, The National hit on all cylinders with a crispness that is not always evident in live shows. And when it was time for a song to close with an explosion, Matt and the boys threw nitroglycerin on the stage for "Terrible Love," "Afraid of Everyone," and "Graceless," a song of very personal meaning to me. Witnessing Matt crouched on the stage on all fours like that caged animal I referenced, screaming in a blood-curdling noise "Grace!" over and over left me conflicted between wanting more and concern for the survival of his voice, let alone his sanity.
The National is a band that is beyond talented musically and, without a doubt, delivered the most entertaining and engaging live performance I have witnessed. Watching four musicians play in harmony while an imposter haunts and prowls the stage, hating and loving his microphone like an out-of-control lover, is something truly to behold.
And it's not camp. Berninger truly looks like a man possessed, perhaps by his own demons, perhaps by the rage and angst from so many years of trying to make it as a band but falling on deaf ears. And when he leaves the stage and enters the crowd for "Mr. November," all bets are off; it is controlled chaos, but just barelyso. Navigating a packed auditorium is one thing. Doing so with a 500-foot microphone wire tethering you to the stage is another. Not a crimp. Not a knot. Just like the rest of the show, an adventure of a ride for band and audience.
When the band closed with an acoustic singalong of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," there was a feeling of love in that huge room. Love not just from the crowd forward, but from the stage out. This is a city that craves and supports great music and has been a happy home for this band for many years. That love and appreciation showed in those last few moments, as everyone together, band and crowd as one unit, sang "All the very best of us string ourselves up for love."
Thanks to @roblthom66 and his wife Kendra for providing several additional pictures for this post, not to mention the following video. View the full setlist here.
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Filed under: Pop Culture