The National January 20, The Joint
1. First things first: the crowd. Vegas already has a spotty history with indie bands in bigger venues. And having Spoon play down the street at the Chelsea on the same night threatened to divide a local indie fanbase of marginal size. Credit The National having never played Las Vegas before, the band’s increasingly larger profile or a Saturday night with lots of tourist ticketbuyer potential, but the showing inside the Joint was hearteningly robust—both in numbers and in its interactions with the band. There were even short audience sing-alongs flecking the night, from the repeated refrain “You should know me better than that” from 2013’s “I Should Live in Salt” to the cathartic declaration (especially given the awfulness of 2017, referenced repeatedly by lead singer Matt Berninger) “It takes an ocean not to break” during 2010’s “Terrible Love.”
2. Matt Berninger was born to play Las Vegas. From his commanding physical presence to a vocal projection that belied his famously understated baritone and overcame hoarseness, to his constant banter between songs, the frontman looked and sounded the part of the showman, or at least the indie rock version of one. His Vegas-related anecdotes—from the blanket he lost at Circus Circus when he was a child, to chalking up a missed musical cue due to, ahem, being flustered by all the AVN porn stars he happened to recognize at the Hard Rock Hotel, to the $4,000 jackpot he won after attending an AIGA convention (where, apparently, David Byrne served as a keynote speaker) and then invested into his band—drew both laughs and cheers. And when he got a little too ahead of himself, guitarist Bryce Dessner spoke up and played the perfect foil.
3. Drummer Bryan Devendorf is a beast. It cannot be said enough: The secret weapon of The National is behind the kit. He pounded out a vigorous breakbeat during the otherwise plaintive “Guilty Party,” spiced up the tribal stride of “Squalor Victoria” and held steady on a skittery, complex rhythm throughout “I’ll Still Destroy You,” even holding the line when Berninger flubbed a lyric and had the band return to the beginning—without stopping the music.
In general, the band sounded flawless—and more fleshed out, thanks to touring musicians Ben Lanz (on trombone and synths) and Kyle Resnick (trumpet, synths). And Dessner knew exactly when to pluck out subtle, delicate passages and when to roar forth, his rare solo in recent single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” perhaps inspiring others heard Saturday.
4. The setlist: If Saturday’s 22-song run is any indication, The National rewards frequent concertgoers by cycling through older cuts—a smart tactic during a prolific tour. That said, certain favorites left out might’ve had a chance had the band not played nine out of 12 tracks from 2017’s Sleep Well, Beast—though, it’s a great album to bestow such a generous airing, and only the pedestrian rocker “Turtleneck” felt like a wasted inclusion. Furthermore, given its likely influence on the more exploratory Sleep, it was disappointing not to hear any of the band’s covers from the Grateful Dead tribute album Day of the Dead, compiled by Dessner and his brother/bandmate, Aaron Dessner. On the flipside, the encore included the unreleased track “Rylan,” which has only been played 17 times since 2003.
5. Multiple climaxes: Anyone dismissing The National for being too mopey or sedate has clearly overlooked its penchant for building its songs to explosive endings, which it employed numerous times, from “System” to “Squalor” to favorite “Fake Empire.” By all rights, the reliably climactic “Terrible Love” should have closed the show instead of 2003’s “About Today,” which mostly adhered to the softly played tension heard on the recorded version and threatened to send everyone out on a bummer note. But the band came through and wrapped everything up with a maelstrom of furious strumming, wailing horns and martial beats. The National’s newfound studio dynamism has clearly spread to the live show. Perhaps the long road to Las Vegas came at just the right time.