The National at Marquee Theatre Last Night

Luke Holwerda
The National live at Marquee Theatre in Tempe.

The National
October 14, 2010
Marquee Theatre in Tempe

The National's singer, Matt Berninger, has a reputation for performing drunk. It hasn't been a huge problem -- never leading to a canceled tour or even ruining a high-profile show as far as I know -- but the bottle on the drum riser is a well-known crutch for the introverted frontman.

So it was nice to see the impossibly rich baritone seem sharp and sober at Marquee Theatre as his Brooklyn-based band played the Valley for the first time in five years.

Until the encore, anyway.

Upon returning to stage after only the briefest of breaks, Berninger busted out a bottle, pouring two solo cups for people in the audience and taking (ahem) a few sips himself. Maybe he'd been swilling all along, but the effects hadn't been noticeable until they got hard to ignore.The first song the band played after re-taking the stage?

"All The Wine" from 2005's Alligator.

And all the wine is all for me
And all the wine is all for me
And all the wine is all for me

Those lyrics are a little misleading. Like I said, Berninger shared his booze. Also, the bottle looked more like hard liquor than wine from my vantage point. Still, could the song selection be more than coincidence?

Disappointingly, the encore that followed was pretty weak. It was an unfitting end to a very impressive show by the band, originally formed in Cincinnati. As I said, maybe he'd been drinking all along, without ill effect, but things went downhill in a hurry.

For the most part, "Wine" was, like the 15 songs before it, simultaneously stirring and restrained in a thoroughly engaging way, but with some awkward gestures and missed notes. By the second offering (the band's all-time best song, "Mr. November") the ethanol Berninger had consumed was acting as a central nervous system depressant, impairing his ability to moderate his voice, which sadly slipped from "anthemically sad" to flat-out raspy. (The performance looked a lot like this video from May.)

"Terrible Love," which came next, wasn't as terrible as, say, walking with spiders, but it was dramatically less engaging than "Bloodbuzz Ohio," the first single off the album the band is promoting, High Violet, which came early in the set and was, for my money, the highlight of the night. A floor foray that took Berninger into the crowd and all the way to the soundboard couldn't save the song.

By the closer, an acoustic and mic-less version of " Vanderlylle Cry Baby," things hit bottom for Berninger. He stood at the side of the stage flapping his arms around like an impotent little penguin while his bandmates led a room-wide sing-along. They did a nice job, but it wasn't quite the same.

Here's the thing: All things considered, this was actually still a great show. The band was that impressive for most of their set.

Luke Holwerda
The eight-piece touring version of The National seemed poised, professional and totally "on" from just after their entrance (they sort of skidded onto the stage, taking an awkward amount of time to start playing after the lights dimmed) to the ill-fated encore. The louder, faster songs, like "Brainy" and "Conversation 16," predictably got the biggest response, but there was hardly a miss in the first 80 minutes of the concert.

For that, The National deserves a lot of credit.

They just need to get a little of that Mariano Rivera spirit going, too.

Critic's Notebook:

Personal bias: I'm also an Ohioan. The part I'm from usually doesn't want anything to do with the part these guys are from, but we make an exception for them, Foxy and The Greenhornes.

The crowd: Put it this way, there were a lot of fixies parked out front.

Overheard: "It's so hot in here!" It was a little warm, but those words were obviously spoken by someone who hadn't been to Clubhouse for Sleigh Bells or Matt and Kim.

Random notebook dump: The encore was pretty rough. Ran onto the crowd scratching his head in the way only drunk people do slapping his side awkwardly

The Runaway
Anyone's Ghost
Bloodbuzz Ohio
Slow Show
Squalor Victoria
Afraid Of Everyone
Baby, We 'll be Fine
Conversation 16
Apartment Story
Mistaken For Strangers
Fake Empire

All The Wine
Mr. November
Terrible Love
Vanderlylle Cry Baby

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Martin Cizmar
Contact: Martin Cizmar