The National and Courtney Barnett both delivered punchy sets of new and old material at the Mann Center on Tuesday night as The National kicked off a summer tour in support of their new album I Am Easy to Find. Barnett was unflappable in her power trio, and The National — sharing the stage with several new collaborators — showed the full spectrum of emotions they could evoke with the songs from I Am Easy to Find.
Barnett greeted everyone with a rousing “Well, good evening!” as the sun began to set and the crowd continued to grow. Her trio spread themselves far apart on the stage in front of a fabulous backdrop: a tall cloth screen displaying an urban sprawl in a black and white cartoon, flattened out like a cubist comic. Barnett let loose early with her guitar solo on the opener “Avant Gardener,” one of her oldest and most beloved hits. The band followed with “City Looks Pretty” from last year’s Tell Me How You Really Feel, and they kept pounding away with hardly any breaks between songs. Sometimes Barnett let her guitar feedback ring out indefinitely after a song ended; some of the songs collapsed into chaos, toppled over and sent the band tumbling into the next song without even a moment’s rest.
“Hello! Good to see you all, nice to meet you,” Barnett announced in the middle of the set. “You look like lovely people. I’d like to introduce my band to you, they’re lovely people too.” After giving friendly thanks to her longtime bandmates Dave Mudie on drums and Bones Sloane on bass, Barnett let the crowd know that her mom and dad had traveled from overseas to see the show that night (Barnett was born and raised in Sydney, Australia) and a pink spotlight gestured toward where they stood in the crowd. She followed with “Small Talk,” a single from 2018 that includes a deadpan salute to her “brother Blake” and his “cool girlfriend” — “I hope they have kids so I can be a cool aunty, yeah.”
The band ripped through several more hits and only grew more intense as the set went on. Barnett’s wacked-out guitar improvisation peaked on “Small Poppies” – she often played with no pick, ripping at the strings with her fingers, doubled over dancing with her hanging down at her knees. Afterward, they reined in the chaos with a steady and sleepy rendition of “Depreston,” Barnett’s ode to “a California bungalow in a cul-de-sac” and a crowd favorite. Barnett turned especially dark toward the end of the set, raising her voice to a guttural scream on the new single “Everybody Here Hates You” and the scathing classic “Pedestrian at Best.”
A rigorous overhaul took place on stage between sets in preparation for The National’s set, which featured the five longtime band members Dessner, Dessner, Devendorf, Devendorf and Berninger alongside several of the guests who joined them on I Am Easy to Find: singers Kate Stables (This Is the Kit) and Pauline de Lassus (Mina Tindle), drummer James McAlister (who worked with Aaron Dessner on 2018’s Big Red Machine and with Bryce Dessner on 2017’s Planetarium) and multi-instrumentalist Kyle Resnick (who has previously played with The National, Beirut, Sufjan Stevens and others). When the ensemble took the stage, three large LED screens above their heads lit up with fuzzy black and white graphics sliding back and forth. Berninger held a plastic red solo cup in his hand as he addressed the crowd blithely. “How’s it going, thank you for coming.”
They began the set with the first two tracks from I Am Easy to Find, “You Had Your Soul With You” and “Quiet Light,” as the glowing screens filled with real-time footage of the band on stage in black and white, overwhelmed by glaring spotlights, with blotches of paint layered on top of the footage. Gentle purple and blue spotlights swelled on “Quiet Light” as Bryce’s guitar began to screech. On both the first two selections, as well as “Oblivions” and “The Pull Of You,” cascading layers of drums – McAlister and Bryan Devendorf played two separate kits – drove the music forward and built a sense of perpetual tension. The band has developed an instinct for this kind of tension, building it but never breaking it throughout much of I Am Easy to Find, just like on 2017’s Sleep Well Beast and 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. At the end of “The Pull Of You,” under fiery pink lights, Berninger raised his voice to a yell for the first time as guitars and crashing cymbals tore the song apart.
Bryce stepped forward at one point to give thanks to his friends Stables and de Lassus for their contributions to the album before introducing “Hey Rosey”, which found the two singers and Berninger all belting together in their strongest ranges. The expanded live lineup projected all of The National’s repertoire convincingly by following logical, cohesive arrangements, but also helped the band explore some new sonic and structural possibilities on stage. As bassist Scott Devendorf explained in an interview with The Key from earlier this month, each musician now had a lot more to listen to and a lot more to react to at any given moment. A dense new arrangement of “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, with revitalized drum parts, proved to be a crowd favorite; “Guilty Party” prominently featured auxiliary percussion and bright trombone riffs by Resnick.
As the set went on, the band got looser and Berninger busted out plenty of spontaneous dance moves. While they rode out “Rylan”, Berninger held his red solo cup clenched between his teeth and pounded out an air-keyboard part on top of Aaron’s upright piano, and then the song disappeared in a flash. “Anybody have a sister?” Berninger asked the crowd during the next lull. After a muddled response, he wondered, “Nobody out there has a sister?” When the crowd offered up a heartier response, he continued, “This is for your sisters. This is for my sister.” The band followed with the steady and resigned “Lemonworld”, from 2010’s High Violet.
More favorites from High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me continued to move the room, including the devastating “Pink Rabbits” and the transportive “Hard to Find” – under indigo lights and thick stage smoke, through which Bryan’s neon yellow trucker cap gleamed. “Graceless” was the night’s joyful peak: when lush layers of blue and magenta filled the room, Berninger walked out into the audience and tiptoed across several rows of seats as several roadies chased after him, vigorously uncoiling his microphone cable. The title track “I Am Easy To Find” followed as a melancholy counterpoint, while a plain white light brought stillness to the stage and the trio of singers wondered, “How long have we been here?” The LED screens showed footage of the first several rows of the hushed crowd, again in black and white, next to Aaron’s hand on the piano keys. Reflective songs like “I Am Easy to Find” revealed how comfortably The National have grown throughout their twenty years together, as several of them have split off to live in different cities with their spouses and children. Now more than ever, these musicians have nothing to hide. They reject rock-and-roll hauteur on stage in order to legitimize candid stories about their very real lives, and they make remarkable the everyday moments that so many of us take for granted when we live too fast.
After the exhilarating “Where Is Her Head”, the band stepped off stage for a few moments and then returned for five additional songs, beginning with the zany statement piece “Not In Kansas.” Berninger, looking drained, leaned against the microphone stand and pulled at his own hair as he mumbled through diaristic verses about his – and the country’s – last four years, interspersed with sweet duets by de Lassus and Stables. After this, their longest song of the night, The National pulled off a stellar finish with “Day I Die”, “Mr. November” – their rowdiest and oldest selection, from 2005’s Alligator – “Terrible Love,” and finally I Am Easy to Find closer “Light Years”. As they brought the music to a somber conclusion, the three singers confronted the audience standing in a row, still and wordless.
The National’s tour of North America and Europe will continue throughout the summer. Their album I Am Easy to Find, with an accompanying film directed by Mike Mills, came out in May. Courtney Barnett will continue traveling with The National, and will also perform at Firefly Music Festival in Delaware later this month.
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