For Scott Devendorf, bassist for The National, touring, even after almost two decades, still never gets old. “There’s a regularity to it at this point,” he said in a recent phone interview, “but then there are always irregularities too somehow.” One thing is certain though, and that’s the fact that with this band, “it’s not old hat, ever,” as Devendorf went on to say. Anyone who has seen The National live can tell you that lead singer Matt Berninger is as unpredictable and emotive as anyone in rock today. In fact, the band is at least as well-known and well loved for its dark and wild concerts as it is for the seven impeccably crafted studio albums it has released since 1999. The National’s most recent studio recording, 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, earned a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in a category that was chock-full of strong contenders, such as Father John Misty and LCD Soundsystem.
On Saturday, September 22, The National returns to the Santa Barbara Bowl with opening act Phoebe Bridgers for what promises to be one of the season’s most memorable shows. The twins Bryce and Aaron Dessner and the brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf come together in a telepathic trance of sibling synergy that sends every number in their set into sonic overdrive. The group’s style, while drawing on a wide range of sources, stands apart from the mainstream while accomplishing rock’s most difficult task — the minting of truly anthemic originals. Able to bridge the broad musical gulf separating New Order from Can without strain, The National knows how to swell up to arena size like U2 without flooding those big venues with even bigger egos. Long forms, catchy melodies, and major-chord crescendos serve as the delivery system for Berninger’s wry reflections and fiery exclamations. Listening to the band’s prodigious run of albums in chronological succession, one is struck with wonder at how pure its sonic identity remains through dozens of imaginative variations.
The National’s Bryce Dessner is also part of a recent trend in which successful rock musicians are moonlighting as composers of contemporary classical music. Along with peers Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead and Glenn Kotche of Wilco, among others, Dessner has embraced the classical muse, and the results have been distinctive and well received. His compositions have been played by a long list of top performers, including Katia and Marielle Labèque, Sō Percussion, Eighth Blackbird, and Kronos Quartet. His music has nothing to do with the cheesy classical crossover efforts of the prog-rock era. Instead, it’s the product of an intellectually adventurous and highly educated musician who knows when and how to leave things alone. In other words, the band’s rock doesn’t sound “classical,” and Dessner’s compositions, while they may reflect his broad knowledge of all kinds of music, do not rely for their impact on rock-derived effects.
Without slackening their efforts as The National in the slightest, all the members of the band have pursued interesting side projects in recent years. Scott Devendorf isn’t composing any symphonies, but he and the rest of The National are all over the epic five and a half hours of Day of the Dead, the 2016 Red Hot benefit compilation of new interpretations of music by the Grateful Dead. This led to Bryan and Scott touring with Bob Weir. Any bass player who can comfortably don the Birkenstocks of Phil Lesh has something special going on.
As for the upcoming show in Santa Barbara, Devendorf said to expect The National to “dig deep and play a lot of different things.” The new record, obviously, but also a lot of music from its ever-expanding catalog. Asked if he had any message for the fans, Devendorf replied, “We love the feeling of playing outdoors in California, we respect the Santa Barbara Bowl as one of the world’s top venues, and we really like the wine you guys make.”
The National plays with Phoebe Bridgers Saturday, September 22, 7 p.m., at the Santa Barbara Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.). Call (805) 962-7411 or see sbbowl.com.