A fastidious band that exalts its own music-making process, the National preceded its Tuesday gig at the Anthem with a split-screen video that documented the recording of the quintet's latest album, provided glimpses of the musicians backstage and counted down the minutes until the show began. For the sellout crowd, the video prologue was arty, intimate and over-calculated.
So it was liberating when deep-voiced frontman Matt Berninger repeatedly flubbed the first lines of "Santa Clara," the back-catalogue obscurity that was supposed to open the show. The singer laughed and scrubbed the song, moving on to "Nobody Else Will Be There," from the new "Sleep Well Beast."
That album, nearly all of which was performed during the impassioned two-hour concert, marks a shift for the Cincinnati-rooted but now widely dispersed musicians. Though as carefully produced and arranged as its six predecessors, "Beast" is more raucous. Harsh electronic noises underpin the music, and blaring guitar motifs punctuate such songs as "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness."
That title could refer to various kinds of systems, but Berninger has expressed his distaste for the current president and his party in interviews and on stage. He acidly dedicated "Walk It Back" to Republican strategist Karl Rove, whose alleged words are part of the song, and "Bloodbuzz Ohio" to Republican Sen. Ron Portman of Ohio. A dedication to "all 52" — Republican senators, presumably — prefaced the new "Turtleneck," arguably the National's punkiest tune ever. It fit into a series of back-to-back rockers that dominated the latter part of the main set. During this stretch, the band slowed to its usual stately pace only for "Carin at the Liquor Store," a song inspired by Carin Besser, Berninger's wife and sometime co-lyricist.
Twin brothers and dual guitarists Bryce and Aaron Dessner churned their instruments together during the livelier numbers, but Aaron played keyboards for about half the show. His somber piano anchored such midtempo brooders as "Guilty Party" and "I Need My Girl," delivered by Berninger with his usual suave growl. Two multi-instrumentalists supplemented the band's sound, although they were seldom noticeable except when they played their horns.
The former host of "The Apprentice" may not be the only thing that's shaken up the National. But the group that might once have been voted "Least Likely Alt-Rock Band to Cover a Ramones Song" did just that for its final encore, and its choice was "The KKK Took My Baby Away." Berninger introduced it by denouncing the Donald, although without uttering his name. The vocalist ended the song, and the show, deep in the crowd. His unexpected move breached the divide between performer and audience, and disrupted the National's elegant reserve. That, too, was liberating.