BY MARK GUARINO | THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
The National, if they weren’t making music, looks like they could be buzzing around the office of a start-up internet company.
The band of brothers (two sets) and lead vocalist Matt Berninger are indeed masters of understatement, both in their demure fashion sense and music. But Tuesday at the Chicago Theater proved why that low-key approach is so appealing right now. Unlike the group bombast of Arcade Fire, or the experimental interplay of Radiohead, The National covers the middle ground: This is a band with strongly-guided highs and lows that sound deeply personal, with minimalist structures that make even the most somber moments sound stately.
The band’s 100-minute show at the Chicago Theatre Tuesday, the first of four sold-out nights, showcased the majority of songs from “Trouble Will Find Me” (4AD), its sixth album. Those songs represent the band’s transition into a true force to be reckoned with on the big stage: The twin guitar interplay of brothers Bryce Dessner and Aaron Dessner slowly building songs like “Don’t Swallow the Cap” through lushly interwoven melody lines. On “I Need My Girl,” a neatly crafted ballad that incorporates tufts of noise, and melting horns.
There were screaming punk moments (“Abel”), and stomping guitar anthems (“Fake Empire”), but what made even those masterful is the band’s sense of control and orchestration. Every flourish and crescendo appeared tightly wound and released at the right time. Guitar solos were nonexistent, but instead those instruments — as well as a plunking piano off to the side — were used as timers to manipulate the tension in the music. Other bands might feel overwhelmed by the momentum of their music, but this one uses precision as an instrument unto itself.
Berninger can be viewed as the anti-Robert Pollard, the unkempt, woozy, and brilliantly intense frontman of Guided by Voices in that Berninger opts for dark suits instead of T-shirts, microphone clutching instead of high leg kicks, and white wine over cheap beer as his drink of choice onstage. But like Pollard, Berninger shuns the usual pretentions associated with the lead singer role and ultimately lets the music possess his movements, even if they are off the stage and crawling over rows of seats, from one end of the theater to the other (which he did during the song “Mr. November”).
At times Berninger nestled himself into a corner of the stage like pretending he wasn’t the guy everyone came to see. The show ended in a likewise ghostly manner: Him striking his microphone to the ground and singing “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” without amplification, the crowd serving as a chorus in helping fill up the room. For a band that strikes such somber notes so beautifully, misery fared better with company.