At face value, a slightly decrepit amphitheatre bordering an amusement park seemed a strange venue for a band with six studio albums under their belt. After all, the last time the National was in Vancouver, the Orpheum played host to their classically moody tunes. One couldn’t help but wonder why the band had chosen to play at this particular location. With forecasted rain, many were left questioning whether or not it was really worth it. Despite increasingly large amounts of precipitation, crowds began to show up long before the show was set to begin. As the daylight dimmed, the quintessential mist of the Pacific Northwest settled over the amphitheatre. The gloomy weather, combined with the somewhat dismal landscape proved not to be detrimental, but rather essential to the ambience of the show. The only real downside was the smell of drenched flannel.
An already soaking and extensive crowd greeted Scottish opener Frightened Rabbit when they took to the stage Sunday night. Sounding like a criss cross between folk-pop “ho hey” bands and Death Cab For Cutie, with extra accents, they provided music that was difficult not to bop along to. The set was well paced and endearing, complete with some beautifully grotesque faces contorted in musical concentration. Whether you were a fan of Frightened Rabbit or not, the band put on a pleasant show that provided an excellent prelude for what was to come.
The audience was cheering long before the National even set foot on stage. Rain was falling delicately, failing to muffle the frenzied excitement emitted by the crowd. Looking demure and shockingly human, five men walked casually onto the stage, drinking and waving shyly. However, as the first notes of “I Should Live In Salt” were played, an eruption of force was unleashed both by the band and the audience. The same unassuming beings on stage transformed into entirely different and powerful people. Complete with complicated video projections and a lyric-screeching audience, the show started off with a surge of energy.
It’s difficult to decide whether to compare frontman Matt Berninger to that beautiful shy boy writing poetry at the back of the class, whom all the girls are secretly in love with, or to that crazy man at the local park who drinks from a paper bag, talks to pigeons, and mutters to himself. He somehow manages to encapsulate both of these personas at the same time. Between crooning his poetic lyrics in a beautiful baritone, drinking, and making witty small talk with the audience, Berninger would pace around the stage talking to himself. Each song would work him up to such a level of intensity, it was as if he was reading directly from his diary. Every emotion expressed was so raw and painful that it almost felt wrong to be screaming and applauding while a hug and soothing words seemed so much better suited. The peak of his emotional hysteria resulted in Berninger screaming, throwing the mic offstage and smashing his wine glass with an Ian Curtis like ferocity. Yet after each song he would slip back into his calm and charismatic demeanor as if nothing had happened.
The rest of the band, although less emotionally transformative, was equally as captivating. Comprised of the Dessner twins (Aaron and Bryce) on guitar and piano, and the Devendorf brothers (Scott and Bryan) on bass and drums respectively, they were a magical lot of unquestionable talent. With a set that included songs off their new record as well as crowd favourites “Fake Empire” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and older songs like “All the Wine,” the band managed to perfectly summarize a career that has spanned nearly fifteen years. The show was not without flaws, however. The Vancouver stop was the last date on long tour and tensions within the band were apparent. The projection also stopped working halfway throughout the show. However, the slight friction between members and technical difficulties took little away from the overall experience.
The highlight of the night most definitely came during the encore, which consisted of “Mr. November”, “Terrible Love”, and an acoustic “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”. During the first song of the encore, Berninger came out and walked amongst the audience, which was undoubtedly a highlight in more than a few people’s lives. During the next song he ended up crowd surfing, signing with various audience members, and probably having his posterior groped by shameless teenagers. Although the concert was already amazing, the final few moments made it unforgettable. After all the excitement of the show, the beautiful and acoustic “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” closed off the night in an emotional and delicate way that allowed everyone in attendance to drunkenly sway, sing along, and brim with absolute contentment.