I’m gonna get a little gonzo here. I didn’t go to the Kimmel Center last night because I was a huge fan of The National, I went because fans tend to talk up their live show, because I love live music, and because in best-case scenarios, seeing a band that you like live can make them a band you love. Four or five songs into their set, though, I was wondering why I wasn’t loving The National. Was it the venue, would I be enjoying this same show much more at a smaller club? Maybe. Music halls in my opinion seem like an illogical venue choice most of the time, and I don’t remember ever seeing a good metal show in a basement and thinking “this is great, but I really wish we could all be enjoying the superior acoustics of wood paneling and the forgiving comfort of red velvet cushions right now.”
It could be something else though. The National are a still-relatively-young band that somehow feel as though they’d joined the rock-and-roll body politic already in mid-career. Their show is measured, subdued, quiet — a contrived calculation — with everything from the spotlights to the smooth fanfare of trumpets pinched from Belle and Sebastian polished to the point of impotence. The musicians are talented and play tightly, but even their solos never really open up the throttle, and the engine never seems to turn over. There’s a level of motion hindered, but not in the good way that hints at a really volatile potential energy.
Through at least half of the set, Singer Matt Berninger introduces each song in some strange parade of political dedications, whether unironically to a genuine heroine (“Born To Beg” which he dedicated to US Attorney Sally Yates) or ironically — either to a Trump-henchman-du-jour (“Secret Meeting” was dedicated to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner), or even a former-Bush-Henchman-not-du-jour (um, why are we still gnashing teeth about Karl Rove, a decade later, guys?). We get it, man. We all read the news too, and we the choir of the already converted will happily affirm this call-and-response in our sold-out white liberal echo chamber.
With each of their songs, Berninger cycles through the same lazy stagecraft, delivering a verse and a chorus and then shuffling restlessly around the expansive real estate up there while nursing a red Solo cup like Toby Keith, visiting with each of his six other bandmates for a few seconds, and doing this redundant dance as though he’s trying to free his arms from entanglement in an invisible shirt. He feels almost uncommitted, like some sort of tourist on his own stage. And twice he awkwardly ventured into the crowd, climbing over the seats and into the back on the venue, forcing stagehands to scramble to give him appropriate slack to run his mic cord over fans’ heads for several dozen rows.
About halfway through the set I recognize that I’m just bored. And then I’m hit by a cold, wet realization. Literally. During “Turtleneck,” the bearded, bespectacled Berninger had hurled his Solo cup half-full of beer into the black abyss in front of him, which ultimately arrived at row Q, striking me squarely in the thigh. Beer splashed across the floor, my pants and my camera, and soaked my brand new right shoe. It was as though I had deserved it for something, somehow, as though he could make out all the notes I’d been documenting for the last hour or so, and was angry. Maybe it was to try to remind us that he really was a rabid rockstar with a wild streak, that a National show really was exciting, and that I should have some goddamned respect. But the inescapable fact remains: The National were boring last night. — JOSH PELTA-HELLER