Review: The National @ Chicago Theater 4/15/14

Words: Alex Wood

It’s easy to recall the days when The National weren’t so overwhelmingly popular. Even 2010’s High Violet tour, a mere four years back, wouldn’t have sold out four nights at The Chicago Theatre.

So what changed, exactly?

One could argue that The National’s music has been a constant progression leading to last year’s Trouble Will Find Me, its emotional, delicate writing wrapped in the Dessner brothers’ warm, dense production, a combination that made for a relatable, mature listen and inevitably increased their popularity.

Alligator developed a blueprint that Boxer expanded on, adding density to arrangements and dramatic builds within songs. High Violet continued to focus on texture, the music itself impenetrable in its density, the band seemingly testing how far they could take this sonic exploration.

This, I would argue, is where the change occurred.

As the band’s sound grew larger in scope, their live show naturally did the same. When the new songs elevated the band’s performances to another level, the fan base inevitably grew.

Thus it came as no surprise when the 24-song set list consisted almost entirely of songs from the last two records, their massive, epic arrangements equaled by intense performances and visuals.

Two horn players accompanied the five-piece band, adding trumpet, trombone, percussion and background vocals to the already huge sound. An elaborate light show and video screen with visuals provided dramatic effect.

Openers “Don’t Swallow The Cap” and “I Should Live In Salt” introduced the band’s spacious sound, immediately hurling the audience into the new album with two of its strongest tracks.

Matt Berninger sang downward into a lowered microphone, the Dessner brothers walking to the front of the stage in unison for their simple yet jarring guitar parts. Bryan Devendorf, the massively underrated drummer, continually created unique rhythms, almost spellbinding to witness.

Individually, each performer’s part remained fairy simple, yet combined they created extravagant compositions, complexity lying within the interplay between instruments and emphasis on dynamics. Guitarist Bryce Dessner used a variety of tricks to add to the ambiance, including playing with a bow and at one point holding a second guitar upside-down, smashing its headstock into the floor for feedback.


Two guitars created an atmospheric intro to the always-energetic “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” its chugging drum line emerging from the bed of sonic noise. “Sea Of Love” followed, a perfect example of the new album’s immediate accessibility as the crowd clapped in time. The music escalated until Berninger was literally screaming, stacks of distorted guitar and blaring trombone beneath him.

Similar climaxes occurred in older tracks “Squalor Victoria” and “Abel,” offering welcome bursts of energy amongst the often cool, relaxed demeanor of other songs.

“Ada” was announced as “a song from Boxer we haven’t played in a while” by Berninger, and featured an interpolation of the horn line from Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” at its end, met by huge applause from the audience.

“About Today” built to a huge climax that the studio recording lacks, each member providing different rhythms and noises, Berninger frantically pacing the stage, coming off as some sort of mad genius with his sharp clothes and wine glass.

The set finally finished with a practically obligatory “Fake Empire,” its performance enhanced by the presence of horns and again garnering handclaps from the audience.

The encore was a well-crafted set in its own right, beginning soft and slow with a cover of Perfume Genius’s “Learning” before breaking into “Mr. November,” in which Barninger climbed across the wall beside the stage, shouting the vocals over the crowd and banging the microphone into his head with a loud ‘clunk.’ By the end of the song the singer was crowd-surfing over the audience, the band still relaying the energy from the older song.

“Terrible Love” followed, as though to remind the audience that the band’s newer sound can be just as loud and rocking as the old, before closing with an acoustic rendition of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.”

With both guitarists playing unplugged acoustics into microphones and Berninger’s microphone turned toward the crowd, the entire audience joined in for the vocals, the sing-along making for an emotional end to an emotionally charged evening.


1. Don’t Swallow The Cap
2. I Should Live In Salt
3. Sorrow
4. Bloodbuzz Ohio
5. Sea Of Love
6. Hard To Find
7. Squalor Victoria
8. Afraid Of Everyone
9. Conversation 16
10. I Need My Girl
11. This Is The Last Time
12. Ada
13. Lemonworld
14. Abel
15. Slow Show
16. Pink Rabbits
17. England
18. Graceless
19. About Today
20. Fake Empire

21. Learning (Perfume Genius)
22. Mr. November
23. Terrible Love
24. Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks (acoustic)

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