Show review: The National

Photo by Kyle Lewis, via The National's Facebook page

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.

Matt Berninger takes to the crowd for "Mr. November."
Matt Berninger takes to the crowd during “Mr. November.”

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.

Set list

Nobody Else Will Be There
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
Walk It Back
Guilty Party
Don’t Swallow the Cap
Afraid of Everyone
Bloodbuzz Ohio
I Need My Girl
Wasp Nest
Green Gloves
I’ll Still Destroy You
Day I Die
Turtleneck
Carin at the Liquor Store
Sometimes I Don’t Think
Slow Show
Pink Rabbits
Graceless
Fake Empire

Encore
Rylan
Mr. November
Terrible Love
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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6 thoughts on “Show review: The National

  1. luther blissett

    “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.”

    Apples and oranges, surely? Byrne is a veteran who can fill the arena with creaky middle-agers; Nathaniel Rateliff was up at Highland on the meadow. The Wolfe Auditorium is a weird, constrained space that isn’t conducive for rock, doesn’t promote its calendar compared to Asheville’s other venues, which means fewer spur-of-the-moment attendees, and ticket pricing (plus fees) is fairly steep.

    It’s part of a broader problem for artists who sell out 1000-capacity venues in minutes and have high billing during the ever-lengthening festival season, but struggle to fill bigger spaces when they graduate to Live Nation / Ticketmaster territory.

    • HD

      Personally I thought the National show last weekend was incredible. Sound was as good as you can expect from the civic center. The crowd on the floor was totally lame though. I couldn’t understand how so many people could stand absolutely still while an incredible band was putting so much into a great performance. I wouldn’t expect the Asheville show to rival their hometown shows but I was very pleased with the energy they brought to our small town!

      Unfortunately we probably won’t see them around here again for another 5 years. Where was the Asheville love?!?

      • Edwin Arnaudin

        I think they’re going to start bypassing us and stick to large arenas and amphitheaters in Charlotte, Raleigh, Atlanta, etc. After the response from Friday night’s crowd, I wouldn’t blame them.

  2. someone

    speaking of the thomas wolfe, the modest mouse show a week ago sounded terrible, isaac’s words were in audible. was this an off night for the band? or the venue’s fault?

    • luther blissett

      The only concerts at the Wolfe I’ve enjoyed have been either quiet/acoustic or put in a lot of work on the PA rig (e.g. Sigur Ros, some of the Moogfest sets). It’s not a great space for louder acts who show up on the day. But there’s a larger problem with arenas and bigger auditoriums right now: they’re the squeezed middle, the Sears and Macys of the concert world.

      • Edwin Arnaudin

        I thought Wilco, Father John Misty, Bon Iver and especially Nick Cave all sounded great there last year.

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