Live review: The National at BAM

Matt Berninger of the National at BAM. Photo courtesy of Getty Images
Matt Berninger of the National at BAM. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

The National show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this past Saturday (May 15) was something akin to a bewitching publicity stunt. If you shut your eyes you might convince yourself the hype and hyperbole that surrounded this last-minute concert—a launch event for American Express's new Zync card and a benefit for Red Hot, the excellent AIDS-fighting organization for which the band's Aaron and Bryce Dessner produced the Dark Was the Night compilation last year—was warranted. But what would be the point of that?

The Brooklyn quintet led primarily with the best songs from High Violet, their elegant, heart-rending fourth album of tormented indie rock. The sound was as rich, as luxe and as technically perfect as would expect from an opera-house show, and yes, Sufjan Stevens was there, singing backup on "Afraid of Everyone" and "Conversation 16." But there was an enormous video camera swinging back and forth across the perimeter of the stage from the mezzanine, occasionally dipping into the audience to tape our facial expressions—and, in one case, hitting some chick in one of the balcony box seats in the ass.

This was so the show could be streamed live on YouTube, an admirable gesture. Except it only added to making the entire experience feel completely staged. The band sweetly thanked us and the Internet repeatedly, but they barely moved and often didn't even seem to look at each other. This was very strange, especially given High Violet's nervous, cathartic tremors. But there were a few key moments—gems, really—when singer Matt Berninger was able to let go. It was like watching a shy person internally fighting with himself, and when he broke free, he was excellent: pounding his fists together in fury; chugging from a glass of wine before exploding with raw, red-faced shouts; and in some cases, jumping off the stage, directly into the audience, the camera following his every move. He tried this first during High Violet's first single, "Bloodbuzz Ohio." He got braver and attempted it again during "Abel," off Alligator. Finally, for "Mr. November," part of the National's encore, shit hit the fan. He was screaming and climbing over the seats in the orchestra, yelling in people's faces, stealing hats off people's heads This was wonderful to watch. I just hope the band didn't get in trouble for acting like they were actually playing a rock concert for a few minutes.

The set list, after the jump.

Mistaken for Strangers
Anyone's Ghost
Bloodbuzz Ohio
Afraid of Everyone
Secret Meeting
Slow Show
Squalor Victoria
Little Faith
All the Wine
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
Conversation 16
Apartment Story
Fake Empire
Mr. November
Terrible Love