Photo by MATT SHAVER
I heard “Mistaken for Strangers” on the radio when I was thirteen, and my music taste took a drastic 180 degree turn into the world of indie rock and there would be no going back to the likes of Metro Station, Say Anything or All Time Low. The National’s dreary tones and striking rhythms became the soundtrack to every rainy day and long bus ride, a space where I could wallow and brood comfortably. It only seemed fitting that the forecast predicted buckets of rain for their appearance at the Mann Center on Thursday night.
With opening sets from Phoebe Bridgers and Cat Power, the evening promised to be one of melancholia, full of existential musings and somber ballads played quietly enough to put a stadium to sleep. What I didn’t know is that Matt Berninger has a dual personality: in the studio, he is a muted silhouette, mumbling poetic sentiments in his grounded, earthy baritone. Onstage at the Mann, his performance was whiplash, swinging violently through moods with every song. He chugged wine from a red solo cup, thrashed his body, clawing at his hair in a display of inner torment. And that was only the first song.
When “Nobody Else Will Be There” was followed with two more from Sleep Well Beast, I was worried they might play the album in its entirety. I know it won a Grammy, but like every other longtime fan I wanted to hear the songs I had woven with personal memory. Anything off Trouble Will Find Me — “I Need My Girl,” “Gracless,” “Don’t Swallow The Cap” — had me in tears. Berninger writes a lot of verses about feeling awkward at parties and abandoning grand loves, capturing these small, universal experiences in lyrics drenched with imagery and weighted metaphor.
Phoebe Bridgers reappeared for an emotive duo on “Sorrow.” (I wonder if they’re sick of playing that song after that six-hour loop at the MOMA in 2013.) Berninger dedicated “Bloodbuzz Ohio” to a candidate running for congress in the first district in Ohio against a 30-year Republican incumbent. “He’s got a chance against a guy named Steve Chabot, he’s not a bad guy, just tired…Actually, he’s a douchebag.” When someone cried out, “Play some music!” Berninger spat venom right back: “Do you know what band you came to see, motherf***er?” His energy didn’t fizzle out from there. He sauntered through the crowd, lit seraphically like a risen prophet, tightrope-walking across aisles and taking selfies with fans. Meanwhile, grainy art pop visuals dripped and mutated on screen.
“Fake Empire” was the sweeping orchestral closer, rumbling with the power of a full rhythm section. The encore included a Cat Power cover and two tracks off High Violet that melted into acoustics, Berninger shrinking into a sonorous whisper as if trying to climb into himself. The National have made an art out of patient invisibility with their wallflower-calling anthems. Their music coaxes the anxious and reclusive out of cramped hiding places, saying, you don’t have to disappear. — MARIAH HALL