The main question on many attendees’ minds in the minutes before The National took to the ExploreAsheville.com Arena on Friday, May 4, wasn’t whether certain deep cuts would be on the setlist or how many Star Wars references its members would make. Instead, tops on the list was why so few people had turned out to see one of the best rock bands of the 21st century play one of the more intimate venues on its current tour.
One popular theory was that a fair number of regional fans had opted to see the group two days later in Atlanta for the closing night, headlining set of Shaky Knees — a factor that didn’t stop the festival’s fellow invitees David Byrne and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats from selling out their Asheville shows this week. There was also the possibility that the band’s 2017 album Sleep Well Beast hadn’t made the impact of previous efforts, plus an absence of the cross-section of the band’s fanbase and Star Wars diehards who long, long ago scheduled their annual viewing parties for that evening.
Whatever the reason, and despite The National’s sound having grown to warrant the arena setting, the attendance made next door’s Thomas Wolfe Auditorium (where the band played in September 2013) a more fitting host. Further disconcerting was that, outside of the first few densely packed rows, those who did show up made for a sadly subdued crowd for most of the night, to the point that it didn’t seem like vocalist Matt Berninger would make one of his trademark ventures into the audience.
Understandably, the singer wasn’t quite the live wire he was the prior weekend during the New York City band’s consecutive night shows during their open-air Homecoming festival on the Cincinnati waterfront. A more enthusiastic audience may very well have inspired a higher energy level, but the sonic output from Berninger and the talented ensemble left no cause for complaint — and was probably a good deal better than attendees deserved.
Arriving onstage promptly at 9 p.m., The National focused on Sleep Well Beast to start the set, ticking off four consecutive new tracks, including album standout “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” Over a third of the total selections wound up being from the Grammy-winner for Best Alternative Music Album, the group’s first honor from the Recording Academy. But there were also appropriately decent doses from High Violet (2010) and Trouble Will Find Me (2013), the two expansive-sounding rock albums that earned them arena and stadium status.
Complementing Berninger’s distinct vocals and filling the space with their practiced yet still raw enough rock style were the dual guitars of Bryce Dessner and Aaron Dessner, plus other brothers Scott Devendorf (bass) and Bryan Devendorf (drums), an occasional piano feature, a two-piece horn section and Ben Sloan on a second drum kit.
As appreciation for their efforts remained confoundedly polite, signs of life emerged late in the set when Berninger — his voice possibly going — held the mic out to lyrically knowledgable fans to sing the chorus on a pair of songs, among them “Turtleneck.” It may have been just the spark the crowd needed, however, as the energy at last picked up with “Fake Empire” and carried over to the four-song encore that followed.
The electricity peaked with the 13-year-old and still rip-roaring “Mr. November” — which, as the faithful hoped, prompted the singer the work his way through those standing in general admission, using the occasional man’s shirt for propulsion. As the microphone tech diligently kept feeding cable to prolong Berninger’s trek through the crowd, smartphones did their best to capture his movement across the floor and into the house right side of the arena and back to the stage.
In front of the now adoring ticket-buyers, he miraculously kept the mood charged with “Terrible Love” before giving way to an acoustic, mic-less singalong to “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” There’s arguably no better way for The National to send its fans off into the night, though the farewell carried with it the melancholy feeling that it could be their last local stop for a while — at least while they continue to trend upward.
Nobody Else Will Be There
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
Walk It Back
Don’t Swallow the Cap
Afraid of Everyone
I Need My Girl
I’ll Still Destroy You
Day I Die
Carin at the Liquor Store
Sometimes I Don’t Think
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks