BY STEVEN ROSEN
Matt Berninger had just finished singing, in his gloomy baritone croon, the first song – “I Should Live in Salt” – of the National’s outdoor set at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Forever Cemetery and was now taking in the view from the stage.
There were a couple thousand eager but polite fans on the lawn. Many had spread out blankets and had brought picnic baskets of Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods goodies along with plenty of booze and, in some cases judging from the wafting aroma, marijuana. Beyond them, further away from the stage, was a cluster of mausoleums and then a sea of headstones.
“Boy, it’s a pretty dead crowd out there,” he said. There were modest laughs. “It took me half an hour to write that joke,” he apologized, before going into “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” from the National’s recent Trouble Will Find Me album.
The jokes may be weak, but the band, after a decade’s worth of experience, is perfect at playing live its singular repertoire of melodic and frequently melancholic songs that nevertheless roar with sonic thrust. While Berninger’s lyrics are introspective to the point of abstraction (and weirdness), the band rocks with such swagger than the tunes turn anthemic. It’s an odd mix – part Tindersticks and part U2 – that slowly has made the Brooklyn (by way of Cincinnati) band one of indie rock’s biggest.
But playing a cemetery? Why not? The repertoire is a good fit. As guitarist Aaron Dessner noted before the band played “Anyone’s Ghost,” “It’s not hard for us to find songs appropriate for a cemetery.”
Throughout the show, Berninger’s lyrics and enunciation remained crystal clear while brothers Dessner and brother Bryce provided slashing, humming guitar (with Aaron also moving frequently to piano). Brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf offered propulsive drums and bass, and trumpeter Kyle Resnick and trombonist Ben Lanz added brass flourishes that kept lifting the songs up from their morose trappings.
The tall and lean Berninger, who seems so brooding when he paces the stage while singing, was friendly, even flippant, with his adlibs and wine swigs between songs. After the romantically heartfelt “I Need My Girl,” he said he was struck with anxiety while singing it because he thought his zipper might be open. (I doubt if another brooding baritone rock singer, the later Jim Morrison, ever worried about that.)
The National also has developed a transfixing light show; a video screen shows a constantly shifting Nam June Paik-influenced style of flickering, flashing abstract and concrete imagery, including shots of the band.
I recently read a Rolling Stone story that described a National appearance at New York’s PS1 contemporary art museum in which the band repeatedly played “Sorrow” as part of a conceptual project. The article describes the band’s transfixing effect on the local fans – “by the last two hours, they’re cheering wildly after each take, clapping and singing along…”
Well, Los Angeles is different. There never was that kind of pandemonium. Perhaps because it was so well-fed and well-buzzed, most of the crowd – other than those upfront – sat through the 25-song (including encores) set, which included such tunes as “Mistaken for Strangers,” “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Swallow Victoria,” “This Is the Last Time,” “Afraid of Everyone,” “Conversation 16,” “Terrible Love,” “Graceless,” and the essential “Fake Empire.”
And yet, when the encores – four songs – came, nobody moved to leave early. They all stayed, perhaps knowing how touching the last choice, the favorite “Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks,” would be when Berninger invited opening act Daughter on stage to join in a late-night, loose-feeling sing-along.
The night before, the National had played a sold-out show at the outdoor Greek Theater; that this too sold out quickly showed their appeal. It was the end of the tour, and the Dessners’ parents had come from Cincinnati to be there. (The National also subsequently did Jimmy Kimmel Live and were guests on KCRW-FM, making the A-list promotional rounds before leaving L.A.)
A cemetery may seem like a creepy place for a show, but this is a hipster cemetery if ever there was one. A modest but nicely landscaped space in the heart of cluttered Hollywood, it has a statue honoring permanent resident Johnny Ramone. Its open-area performance lawn, in a rear corner, nudges up against nearby Paramount Studios and is the site for both indie-rock concerts (Grizzly Bear also recently played there) and an outdoor movie series that draws thousands.
Flat green public open space is at a premium in central Los Angeles, so using a cemetery like a park makes great sense. Using one for concerts makes sense, too – waiting for the music to start you can wander around reading headstones. My favorite, for someone named George Goldsmith, read, “This was a man of quiet thought and dead.”
Hope he liked the National.
[Photos of the concert via fan submissions to the National’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/thenationalofficial/photos_stream]