By: Sean Moore/ Photos By: Kenneth Coles
“This is actually the perfect environment,” Matt Berninger said, after asking the rain-soaked crowd how they were doing, while looking out across the field at Thompson’s Point. He was not wrong. The overcast, gray sky and dense, low-hanging clouds seemed to add to the ambience of the music. It had rained steadily all day, including a few quick downpours all the way up to the opener Courtney Barnett taking the stage, but that was not going to stop The National from playing. It took the band twenty years to play here in Portland, and they more than made it worth the wait, with an incredible set of songs that spanned almost all of their albums, with a focus on I Am Easy to Find, which they released a month ago.
Courtney Barnett opened the night with a bit of a shortened set, due to the start time being pushed back 30 minutes. “I joked earlier today that if the show goes on as scheduled, I’d play in a suit, so here I am, wearing a suit,” she quipped before ripping into “Avant Gardener.” Regardless of the length, her set really showcased her ability as a songwriter and guitar player, as she fit in enough solos to whet the appetite of the crowd, especially in “Small Poppies,” the awesome seven-minute track from her debut album. She split her setlist evenly between her two albums (re: Sometimes I Sit and Think… and Tell Me How You Really Feel) and the crowd loved hearing “Need a Little Time” as well as “Depreston,” the former written about the Australian native’s hometown.
“This is actually the perfect environment,”
The National walked out on stage a few minutes past 8 o’clock, accompanied by Kate Stables, and played three songs (“You Had Your Soul With You,” “Quiet Light,” and “Hey Rosey”) from the new album, which features guest vocals from multiple female artists in the band’s most collaborative and artistically beautiful endeavor to date. All night, Kate stood behind her mic and traded verses or added background vocals while swaying, dancing in place, clapping her hands to the rhythms, smiling every so often when lead singer, Matt, looked in her direction.
Meanwhile, Matt sauntered around the stage, with an absolutely casual coolness that one can perhaps only dream of possessing. He made a point of telling the crowd he was drinking wine all night, from red solo cups, which he tossed (half-empty) to three lucky people in the front row at different points during the show. He has a way of stalking his microphone before approaching it to sing in his deep baritone voice. He would release it from its stand with unpredictability and make his way to both sides of the stage as well as the edge of the stage on multiple occasions, which brought out one of the band’s roadies to coil and uncoil the wire, at one point he joked, “It’s fine. It’s fine. Oh, no. Wait, there’s a bit of a mess.” Because of the rain, several of the monitors on stage appeared slippery as Berninger attempted to make calculated steps onto them, slipping four or five times before giving up.
When the band blasted through “Don’t Swallow the Cap” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” with ferocity, especially towards the end of the songs, which saw the Dessner brothers (Aaron and Bryce) playing their guitars at the front of the stage and the true, rock sound of the band was showcased and you wondered if the people at the nearby airport could hear. Then, they went back to their new album for four more songs, including the incredible track “The Pull of You” which received a great reaction from the crowd when Matt and Kate traded fast-paced, spoken verses while the band played with amazing precision. Matt briefly left the stage and Kate sang “Where is Her Head,” which Matt came back towards the end of and sang his part. A few of the surprises of the night were the addition of “I Need My Girl,” “Brainy,” and “Fake Empire,” all of which received an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd. But, perhaps the highlight(s) of the entire night happened first, when Matt made his way down from the stage via the metal, makeshift staircase, climbed atop the barricade, and then over it, and walked nearly halfway through the crowd, onlookers followed the microphone’s cord with their eyes until he appeared back on stage, looking a bit disheveled, his glasses had fallen halfway down his face. The entire time he was walking and singing, you could hear the crowd yelling and singing along into his microphone. For being such a widely successful and well-known band, Matt’s interactions with the crowd were so welcoming to witness. He seemed to look directly into the eyes of audience members on several occasions and he yelled some of the lyrics, without the microphone, at/with the crowd.
They ended their set with the beautiful “Rylan,” then came back on stage and played five more songs, including the crowd favorite “Mr. November” which had Berninger screaming the lyrics in almost a frantic way to equal the emotion of the song. The song “Terrible Love” found Matt once again make his way off the stage and into the crowd, before the band played a stripped down, acoustic version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” in an around-the-campfire fashion with the crowd. At the end of the song, Matt took the microphone stand from its place on the metal staircase and handed it to a person who’d been standing front row and center perhaps since the gates opened, at 6 o’clock, rewarded the fan’s devotion. The entire night, though, felt like a reward of years of devotion to a band that has earned accolades not just for albums they put out, but also for their energetic shows.