The National at the Santa Barbara Bowl
Paul Wellman

A recent New York Times recap of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival posited that, in 2014, concertgoing is as much about participation as it is about performance. If such is the case, we need look no further than Matt Berninger for an exemplar. On Friday night, The National’s frontman helmed a show that felt more like communal performance art than rock ‘n’ roll concert and helped create an evening whose imprint far exceeded its three-hour runtime.

Portugal. The Man at the Santa Barbara Bowl
Paul Wellman

For years I’ve argued that The National’s live show will make a convert out of almost anyone. Anchored by Berninger’s impassioned baritone, the band remains one of modern rock’s tightest ensembles: Drummer Bryan Devendorf is the subtly nuanced force steering the ship; twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner, the detail-oriented masterminds behind the band’s understated hooks and symphonic melodies. On Friday, the seven-piece bounded out of the gates with “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” a propulsive piano-and-drum-driven number whose sway served as the perfect foil to Berninger’s nervous pacing and jagged speak-sing. From there, the night seemed to charge forward with a forceful balance of newer cuts and older favorites. “Sorrow” was an early highlight as the Dessners’ penchant for sharing guitar melodies created a panning effect that seemed to slide from stage left to stage right with an eerie resonance. Later, “Squalor Victoria” nearly pushed Berninger to his vocal limit and provided the first of many moments when the frontman appeared on the verge of exploding out of his own skin.

As the night progressed, fans were greeted with seminal cut after seminal cut, from “I Need My Girl” and “All the Wine” to “Fake Empire.” Halfway through, most folks appeared too enamored to notice the light drizzle that started around the time the band launched into “Abel.” Then Aaron struck the opening chords to “Slow Show” and all hell broke loose. As the skies opened up and 4,000 of us were simultaneously drenched, Berninger gave over a tension-filled rendition of “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” And when the stage lights illuminated the downpour, they cracked open “England,” creating one of those magical concert moments that only fate can orchestrate.

As the clouds passed, the band exited, then returned. A song later, Berninger climbed into the crowd for “Terrible Love” and made it about halfway up the venue before his microphone tether hit its breaking point. Upon his return, the band assembled at the edge of the stage to lead an acoustic “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” With a mass of sopped fans belting along with him, Berninger didn’t once approach the mike, and the move, however subtle or pre-planned, left the whole place buzzing. Chalk one up to the power of a shared experience.


1. “Don’t Swallow the Cap”

2. “I Should Live in Salt”

3. “Mistaken for Strangers”

4. “Sorrow”

5. “Sea of Love”

6. “Hard to Find”

7. “Afraid of Everyone”

8. “Conversation 16”

9. “Squalor Victoria”

10. “I Need My Girl”

11. “This Is the Last Time”

12. “Santa Clara”

13. “All the Wine”

14. “Abel”

15. “Slow Show”

16. “Bloodbuzz Ohio”

17. “Pink Rabbits”

18. “England”

19. “Graceless”

20. Fake Empire”


21. “Mr. November”

22. “Terrible Love”

23. “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”


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