The National is a live band. That’s not to say that their studio releases aren’t complex, pristine recordings full of exceptional songwriting, deep emotions and unparalleled musicianship. They are. But when it comes to presenting moving music in concert, they are in an elite class of their own.
On Dec. 13, The National played their final show of 2017 – presented by Jam Productions and WXRT – at Chicago’s Civic Opera house with a blistering and striking energy that allowed the band to spread its wings while soaring through a setlist dominated by songs off their latest release, Sleep Well Beast. The show began just as the album does, with the careful and contemplative slow-burner, “Nobody Else Will Be There.”
“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” and “Guilty Party” – the latter enhanced by the patient, steady arpeggios of Kyle Resnick (trumpet) and Ben Lanz (trombone) – soon followed while, later, one new track in particular broke away as the jam off the new release. Booming rhythms, from drummer Bryan Devendorf and bassist Scott Devendorf, echoed across the hall at the onset of the sonic assault that was “Turtleneck.” The dueling guitars of the brothers Dessner (Bryce and Aaron) created a complex tapestry of scorching sounds during the song, which front man Matt Berninger navigated like a soldier approaching battle. “This is so embarrassing/Oh, the pissing fits/Crying on their doorsteps and teachers losing grip,” he screamed into the faces, phones and cameras of fans in the front row.
Musical magnitude further ricocheted across the historic venue on tracks including “Day I Die,” “Squalor Victoria” and “Afraid of Everyone” on which Bryce Dessner delivered a ferocious, face-melting guitar solo, yet The National somehow seamlessly transitioned into delicate moments of sadness and reflection with ease during the multi-dimensional show. “Pink Rabbits,” “Apartment Story” and “Wasp Nest” – dedicated to tour openers This Is the Kit – submerged fans in the melancholy beauty that The National does so well.
An intersection of crossing red lights amidst a somber blue stage, illuminated Berninger while he sang of hurt buried beneath sadness in the requiem for romance that is “I Need My Girl.” Bryce Dessner finessed feedback with a second guitar elevating the live rendition of the Trouble Will Find Me track while Berninger dropped each line with gut-wrenching beauty.
The poet Charles Bukowski once wrote of a bluebird hidden within his hardened heart, but Berninger prefers to wear his emotions on his sleeve like an open wound. “Bluebirds on our shoulders/We’re half awake in a fake empire,” he sang on The Boxer hit, “Fake Empire,” as the group closed out the pre-encore set with a song that is more poignant now than ever.
Check out photos from The National’s Dec. 13 performance at Civic Opera House in Chicago below and head over to Americanmary.com to pick-up tickets to see the band perform in 2018.
(Photos by Laurie Fanelli)