Just a handful of songs into The National‘s set at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on Monday night, and frontperson Matt Berninger already was losing his voice. If you’ve ever seen the band perform, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Usually, it becomes noticeable during the end of the set, when they run through some of their biggest anthems, “Mr. November” and “Terrible Love,” which require Berninger to get a little more yelly than usual. Over the course of their discography, or a two-hour-plus show, Berninger does vocal cartwheels, pushing his booming baritone out of its comfort zone, so much so that it always takes its toll. And for a band that seems to always be touring, it’s not surprising that his voice reaches its limits.
There’s something lovely in how Berninger owns his own physical limitations. Watching the band evolve from small clubs in the aughts to festival headliners in their present form, Berninger has been required to be more than the buttoned-up stoic that the music might imply. He’s learned how to make big physical gestures. His on-stage movements can at times find their roots in the great frontpeople of hardcore, the kind that get in the audience’s faces and makes them become part of the show. And in recent years, he almost always goes deep into the crowd, taking selfies while yelping the words to whatever rocker inspired his exploration of the amphitheater. The closest approximation in terms of how he uses his performance to boost his band’s music would be Nick Cave, which, you know, might be the highest compliment a critic can give.
These thoughts come at a particularly interesting time for The National. Earlier this year, the indie-rock veterans released their eighth full-length, I Am Easy To Find, which came complete with a short film directed by 20th Century Women filmmaker Mike Mills. The record is predictably great, as the group is renowned for their consistency, but this one is also a notable departure. Berninger turned over more lyrical duties than ever to people like Mills and his wife Carin Besser, and it features a host of other vocalists that frequently find the frontman sidelined. In concert supporting this album, The National has been bringing along guest vocalists (LA got Kate Stables and Hannah Georgas), with Berninger turning extended sections of the show over to them and his incredible backing band. On this album and tour, Berninger is far from the centralized figure of previous runs.
It’s a dichotomy that’s always been central to the band. The core of The National is two sets of brothers. Aaron and Bryce Dessner are producers, composers, and have their hands in a dozen projects at every given moment, while Scott and Bryan Devendorf are a rhythm section of impeccable sturdiness. It’s hard to find a more technically sound and creatively adventurous backing band in the indie sphere, one that could just as easily lead an orchestra as they could record a covers album of Grateful Dead songs, which they’ve done both. Berninger operates on the outside of this, giving The National a quirkiness that is a perfect foil for the proficiency of the band. The harmony of these two elements is what makes them a special band, and one that’s hard to find an equal in the contemporary indie scene.
At the Greek, all of The National had chances to shine. The Dessners relished the opportunity to hoist their guitars in the air at the front of the stage. Stables and Georgas helped songs like “Rylan” and “Not In Kansas” soar above the venue’s massive pines. The Devendorfs reminded that the subtleties behind “Bloodbuzz Ohio” are as unforgettable as the song’s lyrical gems. And even multiinstrumentalists Ben Lanz and Kyle Resnick managed to take center stage for the massive brass conclusion of “Fake Empire.” Berninger and his unpredictable voice could have easily let his compatriots carry the performance, but that didn’t happen at all. Instead, he added to the embarrassment of riches, giving the crowd genuine thrills to accompany the tight musicianship of his bandmates.
Berninger cracked jokes about the film Seven and recalled their humble early visits to LA at the long-rebranded venue Spaceland. He climbed into the pit and over the seats to share vocal duties with enthusiastic fans. He used every person and object on stage for his own creative pleasures, managing to never feel scripted in a world where most vocalists exploit what’s proven to work in endless repetition. It all felt like a masterclass in how to be a frontperson, and is exactly what takes The National from being simply a great band to being perhaps the definitive indie rock band of their generation. Even when supposedly taking a backseat, Matt Berninger is a star that’s impossible to take your eyes off of. No matter how the band evolves, it’s nice to know that will remain a constant, regardless of what point in the show he loses his voice.