Matt Berninger has always taken a more professorial approach to his role as ascendant poet laureate of rock noir. Suit-coated and intense, he lets the gravitas of his baritone – rising as if imperiled by claustrophobia above the National’s clattering orchestrations – speak to the tragic foibles and life-changing moments in his song’s characters.
- ||| Photos by Laurie Scavo
Maybe it was “All the Wine” the singer served himself Friday at the Wiltern, or maybe it was the euphoria of having delivered an album that met (and exceeded) expectations, but Berninger was as punk-rock as I’ve ever seen him at the performance kicking off a long tour behind the new release “High Violet.” From the start, when “Mistaken for Strangers” rumbled it like a Midwestern thunderstorm, to the encore, when Berninger waded into the crowd, the Brooklyn quintet reached for show-of-the-year moments to match those album-of-the-year press clippings.
Whether he was cradling the microphone like a lifeline, pouring himself another glass of white at center stage or caroming around as if the riffs from guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner were body blows, Berninger inhabited his melancholia as few singers do, at least not without anybody dialing 911. The music on “High Violet” is more immediately catchy than on any on the National’s four other albums, but to know the songs still requires an investment of time, literacy and empathy that aren’t exactly abundant in today’s music consumers. (Which makes the fact that “High Violet” charted at No. 3 nationally in its first week amazing.)
Berninger implores you to make such an investment, and he was preaching to the choir at the sold-out Wiltern. For “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” the stage was bathed in red. With many singing along, “Secret Meeting” felt like the secret was out. “Squalor Victoria” and “Abel” shook the place. “Afraid of Everyone” and “Sorrow” made it stand still. And the frontman allowed as how the “Los Angeles cathedral” referenced in the gently orchestrated “England” was indeed the Wiltern.
Still, it was surprising when Berninger communed with the masses during the cathartic blast of “Mr. November,” off 2005’s breakthrough album “Alligator.” He ventured two-thirds of the way up the Wiltern’s north aisle, twice rising unsteadily (hoisted by fans?) above the crowd to scream the chorus “I won’t us fuck us over.”
Of course he won’t.
Ramona Falls, the project of Menomena’s Brent Knopf, opened.