It’s been years since the National have qualified as a “Brooklyn band.” Last summer they packed the All Points West main stage despite pouring rain and this summer promises to be even bigger, with a sold-out show at Radio City Music Hall in June and another gig a month later at Prospect Park. So when they announced two last-minute gigs at Brooklyn’s tiny Bell House, demand was high. Like, sell out in under a minute high.
And for good reason. Last night’s tour opener promised the chance for fans to get a first look at song from their anticipated-is-an-understatement High Violet, due May 11. The band did not disappoint, playing eleven new songs with a horn section, violin/piano player, second piano player, and second drummer. National + brass is always incredible (see: “Fake Empire) and High Violet looks to be their brassiest yet, with a trumpet and trombone playing on every song last night.
The set opened with “Blood Buzz, OH,” proving that, though the National are generally pretty smooth operators, they can get loud. Though none of the new songs quite hit the volume level of Alligator, they bring more energy than Boxer’s slow jams. “Little Faith (Chromehorse)” boasted a distortion pedal-led intro that may be the loudest thing they’ve ever done (it quieted down when the singing began).
The new songs stay true to the honed National sound, but incorporate some unexpected influences. “Sorrow” featured Bryce Dessner playing near-surf guitar on the verses, while “Ghost” sounded like Quentin Tarantino directing a Western. A few new instruments took center stage too, like some type of pump keyboard (“Afraid of Everyone”) and a bowed guitar (“Vanderlyle”).
For a group known for their sonic tightness, the band members were borderline unhinged as their energy bounced off the walls of the tiny club. Dressed in a dapper three-piece suit, lead singer Matt Berninger knocked over everything in sight (“That’s how you know he’s nervous,” guitarist Aaron Dessner quipped), leaning into the crowd so far that he fell on audience members, who were more than happy to nudge him back onstage.
Matt may have been anxious about the new songs, but the band’s only falter came on “Start a War,” the first old (read: already released) song of the night. Despite having the first line to every song written on his set list (see below), Matt forgot the lyrics halfway through the first verse. “These songs are so old!” he exclaimed.
Old, maybe, but the audience, which included Michael Stipe of R.E.M., ate them up. The band’s seven “old” choices were obvious but appropriate, hitting both the high-voltage hollers and mellow meanderings of their most popular songs. “Abel” delivered a full-throttle scream while Matt lurched and jerked among the amplifiers. On “Mr. November,” he left the stage entirely, running then crawling through the audience, grabbing a random girl from the audience to tow along. When the horns came in on set-closer “Fake Empire,” it was the emotional release after a full-concert build.
By the time the band closed their encore with “Terrible Love” (played the previous night on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon), they seemed wrecked, but convinced they’d gotten the songs across. If last night’s show was any indication, High Violet may be their best yet, bridging the divide between rocking and crooning more than their previous releases. May 11th has never seemed so far off.
SET LIST (Matt's)