The National know how to deliver an encore. One day after the band's sold-out concert amid the hills and forest of the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, the National returned last night for another kind of show on the serene open landscape of the city's Hollywood Forever Cemetery, bringing more gentle ballads and crashing indie-rock walls of sound.
It was a strange and inviting venue for an acclaimed rock act never easy to define, facing thousands of fans crowded amid tombstones and mausoleums. For two hours, the Brooklyn quintet (by way of Ohio) performed songs that were both wounded and accented with startling bursts of rage from singer Matt Berninger.
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The song choices weren't vastly different from the night before, but the setting suggested a special tone. It began with a regretful "I Should Live in Salt," from the National's sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me. Berninger's forlorn vocal was accompanied by the strumming of a single guitar as wisps of fog drifted across the stage. Soon the full band soon stepped into the song, adding the night's first wistful blasts of trumpet and trombone.
Between songs, the singer was a humble and irreverent host. "It's a pretty dead crowd out there tonight," Berninger joked to groans as he looked over a park where cultural icons from silent film star Rudolph Valentino to punk-rock originator Dee Dee Ramone are buried. "It took me a half-hour to write that joke."
Hollywood Forever is a rare expanse of flat open land in the middle of the city, occasionally transformed into a unique concert venue, as it was for an emotional performance last October by the xx. (Live performances are more frequent in the cemetery's Masonic Hall.) The National made the most of their time there, noting the presence in the crowd of the mother of guitarists (and producers) Aaron and Bryce Dessner.
The musicians leaned into an atmospheric "Don't Swallow the Cap" with a driving, hypnotic rhythm from drummer Bryan Devendorf as Berninger sang, "I have only two emotions, careful fear and dead devotion/I can't get the balance right." During "Anyone's Ghost," the snarl of postpunk guitars contrasted with the warmth and weariness of Berninger's baritone.
The sound was crisp and loud during "Conversation 16," echoing the brooding pop songcraft of the Smiths, as the vocal confessed: "It's a Hollywood summer/You'll never believe the shitty thoughts I think." "Squalor Victoria" began with a nervous beat and brass section, followed by the full band erupting in a swirl of sparks. By the end, Berninger was raging through the lyrics, knees buckling: "This isn't working, you, my middlebrow fuck-up . . ."
"This next song is not angry, but nicer," Berninger promised, introducing the aching ballad "I Need My Girl," a song from the new album he said was about his wife. Afterwards, he joked, "I had a minor panic attack in the middle of that song. For a minute, I thought my zipper was down."
"This Is the Last Time" was a gentle ballad with heavy undertones, as layers of sound supported his aching romantic plea, horns rising behind him. Before singing "Slow Show" (from 2007's Boxer), Berninger noted how the band has heard that the song is often played at weddings: "There is a penis reference late in the song, so I always thought that was curious."
"Graceless" was virtual Goth rock, with a forceful, gloomy energy. And before singing "England," Berninger noted wryly, "You might have heard it as a Mumford & Sons B-side." Berninger did compliment the Mumford version, then eased into the dramatic original reading of the tune as images of shattered glass flashed on the big screen behind them.
The song was understated at first, then swelled into a storm of horns and bashing guitars and piano, slicing through the cool night air. It was one more highlight in an evening of words on melancholy and loss, absorbed into a sound somehow hopeful and alive in a cemetery to the stars.
"I Should Live in Salt"
"Don't Swallow the Cap"
"Mistaken for Strangers"
"Sea of Love"
"Afraid of Everyone"
"I Need My Girl"
"This Is the Last Time"
"All the Wine"
"Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks"