The National: A normalized rock experience from one of a new generation of headliners


The new normal: The National at Merriweather Post Pavilion. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)
June 7, 2013

There is nothing about the National that would offend a classic rock fan’s sensibilities, but the band still has a tough time packing out the shed circuit. Not that bringing a few thousand fans to the suburbs on a rainy weeknight should be equated with failure.

On Thursday, the Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati quintet performed a two-hour set that drew heavily from its sixth and most recent album, “Trouble Will Find Me,” to a respectable, if nowhere-near-sold-out crowd at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Maybe it was just the weather. The band filled the stands, but attendance was lean in the lawn seats, where an evening of rain had turned the venue’s pastoral cheap seats into one soggy, swampy mud pie.

The National’s music is snoozy but solid. There’s nothing particularly outstanding about the band — guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner can’t (or maybe just won’t) wail. The songs are monochromatic, employing simple chord progressions and gallons of reverb. Singer Matt Berninger’s voice is raspy and thin, and it functions best when he speak-sings his lyrics in a hushed baritone. Between verses, he paced the stage, cupping his chin, as if he were attempting to psych himself up for another run at the mike. Their music sometimes seems to exist in the negative space between other popular bands: a less twangy Wilco, a less treacly Coldplay, a more chilled-out Arcade Fire.

Basically, the National delivers a normalized rock experience. The band is good at evoking tenderness without coming off as cloying, and Berninger’s best lyrics subtly parody the pale gray backing tracks. “I was teething on roses, I was in ‘Guns and Noses,’ ” he sings on “Humiliation.” They are consistent, dependable and — if you’re a slightly mopey, sophisticated young professional — relatable.

And if you are a Beltway resident under 30 and want to watch your favorite band perform an outdoor concert, Merriweather Post Pavilion is likely your only hope. While the D.C. area’s other barn-style venues pack their summer schedules with long-proven boomer-friendly fare — Robert Plant, Steve Miller Band, Jimmy Buffett — the Frank Gehry-designed venue has set its sights on the next generation, hoping that younger, cooler bands will persuade millennials to pile into their cars (or Zipcars) and make the trek to Columbia. This summer’s schedule includes indie-poppers Belle & Sebastian, a double bill of blog faves the xx and Grizzly Bear and the Diplo-curated Mad Decent Summer Block Party.

While these bands often appear near the top of festival bills, they can’t always reliably pack out an outdoor arena in the exurbs. The National, which headlined the venue in 2011 and also appeared at the Virgin Mobile Free Fest in 2009, has proven to be a pretty safe bet.

They are not kids — the band has been together since the early ’00s, and its members are all middle-aged — but have only recently crested in popularity, and they seem to have ironed out their big room moves. Thursday’s set managed to sustain a sense of intimacy throughout two hours’ worth of music without appealing to dino-rock-era padding techniques, like the mid-show acoustic mini-set.

Instead, it was moved to the final encore as the band played a stripped-down version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” as the audience began heading out to the parking lot.

Leitko is a freelance writer.

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