City Pulse

By Katie Calautti

It is nearly impossible to compare Brooklyn-based band The National to any others out there – to attempt such contrasts would do them a disservice. Simply stated: they create mood music for almost any disposition a person might find themselves entrenched in.

It’s rare for me to fall in love with a band at first song. It’s even rarer for a full album to be so satisfying after only the first play. When a friend included “Fake Empire” (the single off the band’s 2007 critically-acclaimed release, Boxer) on a mix CD, I immediately bought the record. After that, I was firmly hooked.

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Cincinnati, Ohio natives-turned Brooklyn relocates, Matt Berninger (vocals), Scott Devendorf (guitar, bass), Devendorf’s brother Bryan (drums) and twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner (guitar, bass) are enormously gifted individually, but as a combined unit, they’re magnetic.
People pick their musical poisons for any number of reasons. I’m a lyrics girl, first and foremost. Though the entire group showcases their innumerable talents (no Ringo Starr complex here, folks), Berninger’s unique, throaty vocals and impossibly intuitive lyrics are what keep me coming back for more. His words make it clear that he is a perfect-o combination of dorky, intelligent, introspective and sensitive. I like that in a front man.

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So when I learned in January that my newfound obsession was playing a homecoming concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (after many weeks overseas on the road promoting Boxer), I made it my personal plight to secure tickets. It was no easy task – the show had been sold out for weeks.

Never one to shy from a challenge, I scoured Craigslist, stalking every ticket posting, until – finally – after countless hours and an exorbitant amount of money, I had my hands on two Orchestra-section seats.

Fast-forward to Friday, February 22. The halls of BAM swelled with the typical Brooklyn crowd (complete with hipsters milling about the bar, trying their darndest to look unimpressed). The location itself – a beautiful opera house-style venue – was packed. And, of course, everyone went wild once the band came out (joined by numerous other guest musicians toting flutes, cellos, violins, trumpets, trombones, tambourines – you name it.) They meant business, although you might not know it from their unpretentious garb. Clad in jeans, blazers and flannel shirts, a casual observer might think they’d just rolled in from nearby Tillie’s, or a garage practice session.

The casual attitude was mirrored by the crowd, who sat calmly, mesmerized by the ballads that kicked off the show (namely, fan favorites “Start a War,” “Brainy” and – from Boxer’s predecessor, Alligator – “Baby We’ll be Fine”).

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Berninger proved to be a modest lead singer – endearing in his reluctance to prattle on and his lack of bravado before the packed house. This unassuming manner didn’t translate to his performance – he was all about the music, and his vocals backed the sentiment 110%. Once the group kicked up the pace for more upbeat tracks like “Secret Meeting,” “Mistaken for Strangers” and “Squalor Victoria” (where Berninger really let loose), he remarked that, “this is just starting to feel normal.”

By the middle of the set, the audience was eating it up – clapping, shouting, singing along. The band switched to more serious choices like “Ada,” “Karen” and – the song that started it all for me (and judging by the response of the crowd, for many others) – “Fake Empire.” A disco ball descended from the ceiling, for added effect. The lighting was a surprisingly appropriate and amusingly kitschy physical embodiment of our collective exuberance.

And after an impressive 15-song set, encore #1 – which included the placid “City Middle,” an animated rendition of “Mr. November” (the finalization of which prompted Berninger to ask the riled up masses, “How many people snuck a flask in here?”), and an untitled debut song – had the audience on their feet for the first time all evening. Still standing and cheering for the second encore, the band ended the evening the way it began – refreshingly mellow – with their ballad “Gospel.”

One thing that’s clear – The National, once a small-town favorite, has grown into something of a phenomenon. The concert felt like a sort of spiritual event – a strangely appropriate mixture of both personal and combined experiences among a diverse group of people. And judging by the atmosphere in the room that night, if Berninger, the Dessner and the Devendorf brothers haven’t already strapped themselves in for the ride, they should have after Friday.

For more info on the band and to listen to music clips, visit their website at www.americanmary.com.

Originally published February 2008
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