"You guys must be super cold and wet, while we're standing here comfortable and dry," remarked the National frontman Matt Berninger, moments into the band's sold-out set at Edgefield. It was appropriate, given the densely overcast sky and punctuated pitter-patter of gentle rain, but it wasn't disheartening.
The Portland summer, however, is gone—and the band's two-hour set gave only more evidence of the quick shift in seasons. The lawn surrounding the stage, typically laden with sprawled blankets and colorful lawn chairs, turned to mud an hour prior to the show even beginning. Sun hats were replaced by umbrellas, sunscreen by the water-wicking shimmer of cheap ponchos, and nearly everyone was standing on the gradual incline headed into the bulb-laced trees. Upon arrival, you half expected to see pumpkin patches beneath the historic buildings of the former farmland, not vineyards producing the pinot gris from which Beringer leisurely sipped throughout the show.
"I'm drinking the local wine and it's delicious," Berninger said. "I put ice in it. That's how I drink my wine. I guess I'm a philistine, among other things."
The Edgefield show was one of the few remaining on the Brooklyn band's U.S. tour of its latest album, Trouble Will Find Me, and found the septet in polished form. Guitarist Aaron Dessner's soaring introduction on album-opener "I Should Live in Salt" was sterling and eerie. Berninger's abraded baritone has always carried a sense of gravity on each of the band's six albums—blame it on his former smoking habits—but its burry nature was perfectly apt among the stuttered, pulsing rhythms of songs like "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and "Humiliation." Though the band performed nearly all of Trouble Will Find Me, its setlist also interwove cuts from its 2010 breakthrough, High Violet, and 2007's Boxer.
Berninger isn't a particularly charismatic or affable frontman. He doesn't really move, though he does occasionally throw the microphone and pace the stage in his spit-shined charcoal suit. (I counted four such instances). Most of the time, he could be found cozied up to the mic, both hands firmly strangling its base, nodding his head back and forth to the rhythm. Because of his lack of outward engagement, however, the times when he does connect with audience are that much more powerful. And the band knows how to do an encore.
The poignant "Mr. November" saw Beringer literally walking atop the crowd, downing cups of McMenamin's beer and repeatedly sputtering "I used to be carried in the arms of the cheerleaders." When it finally began to pour amid the quick-hit backing "oohs" and percussive cannonade of "Terrible Love," it was welcome, a somber moment fit for a somber set. For the closer, "Vandervyle Crybaby Geeks," the band even dropped the reverb and opted for two acoustic guitars, positioning itself at the front of the stage for a rain-drenched sing-along. It was gorgeously spare and morose, with audience members tearfully joining in as Beringer tenderly held a woman's hand near the front.
"It's raining inside all of us a little bit," Berninger offered with a smile toward the end the band's set. "And you know what they say right? Company loves misery." Point taken.
All photos by Brandon Widder.