Editor’s note: This article was originally published April 23, 2014
Suddenly, Matt Berninger was headed straight at us.
The National’s near-two-hour set at ACL Live was coming to a close, and the band was charging through "Terrible Love," the anthemic leadoff track to its 2010 breakthrough album "High Violet." Berninger, the band’s singer, had left the stage and was wandering somewhere near the front of the standing-room crowd on the floor, his voice soaring out above his bandmates’ glorious wall of noise.
He seemed to disappear momentarily … and then there he was, romping right past us in the back of the room and heading out the doors to the open concourse. A super-long microphone cord trailed him all the way, held aloft by audience members lest anyone get inadvertently clotheslined. A cordless mic might have been tidier, but it wouldn’t have conveyed the same drama.
Berninger eventually made it back to the stage for the show’s finale, an acoustic, mostly unamplified sing-along version of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" (which closes "High Violet"). Together, the two songs were a fitting finish to a terrific performance, the second of The National’s three nights at ACL Live.
In an interview a few days earlier, primary songwriter Aaron Dessner had said that part of the reason the band decided to play three shows at a midsized hall as opposed to one night at a larger venue was that "it gives us a chance to play a lot more songs, and change the set list." Tuesday’s show bore that out: More than a quarter of the set’s 24 songs differed from Monday’s repertoire.
While the show still focused primarily on the last two records – "High Violet" and its 2013 follow-up "Trouble Will Find Me" – the band also dug back to 2007’s "Boxer" for three tracks (most notably the blazing "Apartment Story"), as well as a couple of tunes from their early days.
The National’s live aesthetic is grounded in the same dark drama that pervades its albums, with visual effects that underscore the moody, cinematic nature of the group’s music. But whereas the records generally keep the intensity barely in containment, onstage they let the needle peak well into the red.
Multi-instrumentalist brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner and rhythm section siblings Bryan and Scott Devendorf – supplemented on this tour by two horn players – lay down deep currents of color to carry Berninger’s defining vocal magic. On many songs, including "Trouble Will Find Me" highlights "Graceless" and "Humiliation," he caught fire in the final stretch, pushing his usually cool croon into a full-bodied scream.
Other high points included the new album’s grand opening cut "I Should Live in Salt," the fevered "High Violet" track "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and the triumphant "Fake Empire" from "Boxer," which closed out the main set as the Dessner brothers flanked the stage, thrusting their guitars high in the air like twin beacons.
Los Angeles quartet Warpaint opened with a 45-minute set that underscored their ability to cast a convincing sonic spell but lacked any real sense of songcraft. An acoustic set at Waterloo Records earlier in the day served their music better, providing a warm space for trance-like soundscapes that didn’t carry as cleanly in the high-ceiling environs of the ACL Live theater.