By Adam Ellsworth
No one would classify the National as “arena rock,” but Matt Berninger and the group proved at Agganis that they’re quite capable of filling an arena and then putting on a show worthy of the space.
There is no stage that can hold Matt Berninger. As anyone who has ever seen the National live knows, the singer spends a considerable portion of the group’s concerts embedded in the audience. I’ve never actually timed him, so I can’t say this for sure, but it seems like each time the National comes to Boston Berninger spends less time on stage and more time in the crowd. Whatever his previous Boston record for offstage time, I can confidently say he broke it last Thursday night at Boston’s Agganis Arena.
It must have been the size of the room that brought it out of him. On the National’s previous headline trips to the area Berninger simply didn’t have so much room to work with. He was clearly determined to make the most of it. The singer made his first, tentative, foray offstage during “Quiet Light,” only the second song of the set. On that trip, he kept to the front of the stage and didn’t venture out too far. By “Day I Die,” played in the main set’s second half, he was crowd surfing with the general admission fans. By “Graceless” the penultimate song of the main set, he had climbed the stairs to rub shoulders with those in the sideline seats. By the encore, he had made his way to the far-end of the venue to give high-fives to fans at the far end of the gym.
No-one would classify the National as “arena rock,” but Berninger and the group proved at Agganis that they’re quite capable of filling an arena and then putting on a show worthy of the space. In fact everything about Thursday night’s show was bigger than previous National concerts. Their touring ensemble expanded to include not only the usual two brass players, but an extra drummer and three female vocalists as well. The set list ballooned to 25 songs spanning the past 15 years of the band’s career. Even the album they’re supporting, I Am Easy to Find, is their longest and most ambitious release to date, containing 16 songs and clocking in at more than an hour.
Not surprisingly, tracks from I Am Easy to Find featured prominently Thursday night with four straight songs from the album — “You Had Your Soul With You,” “Quiet Light,” “The Pull of You,” and “Hey Rosie”– opened the set. All were well received, and made excellent use of the new female voices onstage. But with the opening chords to “Don’t Swallow the Cap” from 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me the crowd came alive and the show generated the steam that would power it through the next 20 songs. For “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” Berninger showed off his frontman skills without going through the trouble of leaving the stage. As he leaned back and pointed skyward to illustrate the lyric “When they ask what do I see/I see a bright white beautiful heaven hangin’ over me,” he reminded me of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. Like Stipe, Berninger doesn’t dance around the stage like a Mick Jagger or a James Brown, but he’s always moving his body, even when he’s standing in place. It’s impossible not to watch him.
The 2010 classic “Bloodbuzz Ohio” (number 76 on Pitchfork’s top 200 songs of the decade, so it must be good!) followed “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” before the group returned to the new album for “Oblivions,” “So Far So Fast,” and “Where Is Her Head,” all of which again benefited from the women who joined Berninger on vocals.
While Berninger’s frontman antics and the three strong female voices were the obvious attention getters onThursday night, a shout out is owed to twin brother guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner. On record there is no question that the duo — Aaron especially — are the musical backbone of the group, and this is true of the band’s live show as well. While they are primarily “guitarists” onstage, each one hit the keys at Agganis at various points in the night. Main set closer “Fake Empire” began with gospel piano from Aaron (or was it Bryce…I can never tell which twin is which) and ended with both brothers playing the role of guitar hero, holding their axes high and strumming furiously to bring the song to a climax. It’s a move they’ve done on previous trips to Boston, in smaller venues, but it seemed extra fitting in an arena setting.
When the group wasn’t highlighting tracks from the new album (they played 10 of the record’s 16 songs), the set ping-ponged from the expected (“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” “Mr. November”) to the pleasantly surprising (“All the Wine,” “About Today”). The night ended with live favorite “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” As usual, the live version featured the Dessner brothers on acoustic guitar while Berninger led the crowd in a singalong. He never sang a note himself, but instead acted out the lyrics while the sellout crowd did the work. Despite the size of the venue, it was an intimate moment that underlined a comment Berninger had made about Agganis earlier: “It looks big, but it doesn’t feel big.”
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has an MS in journalism from Boston University and a BA in literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.