The National might sound dark and political, but their Sony Centre show was full of joy

Singer Matt Berninger dedicated a song to the newly crowned MLS Cup champions Toronto FC


THE NATIONAL at the Sony Centre, Saturday, December 9. Rating: NNNN


Since releasing their debut album over 15 years ago, the National have gone from scrappy indie upstarts to a household name, headlining major festivals and concerts for presidential candidates.

During their career, all five members of the New York City-via-Cincinnati group have also become fathers, which has unfairly made them recipients of the much-maligned “dad rock” tag. In reality, Matt Berninger and brother duos Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf make music that’s darker and weirder than many of their contemporaries. They’ve gained a reputation for writing songs that obliquely probe darker human impulses, and their meta 2013 tour doc Mistaken For Strangers and marathon museum performance at PS1 in Queens prove they aren’t afraid of taking themselves too seriously.

Taking to the stage to the strains of Bob Dylan’s Most Of The Time while slanted video screens displayed blue-hued projections of the Sleep Well Beast artwork, they wasted no time tearing into a trio of tracks from that latest album. Recorded in a converted barn studio in upstate New York, it contains some of their most political (Walk It Back, which includes a quote attributed to anonymous official in the George W. Bush White House later revealed as advisor Karl Rove, and Turtleneck, which Berninger has said in interviews is about Donald Trump) and personal (Born To Beg, Carin At The Liquor Store) songs to date. Thanks to the addition of horn-playing multi-instrumentalists Benjamin Lanz and Kyle Resnick, fan favourite like Secret Meeting and Fake Empire felt fuller and more triumphant.  

As always, Berninger was the centre of attention, not letting a few earlier soundcheck electrical shocks get in the way of delivering a master class in showmanship. Prowling from side to side, he wailed, slapped closed fists against his side, and fell to his knees on multiple occasions during the two-hour set. He cracked jokes, tossed out a mini bottle of vodka, told a story about how the group once wrote a rejected Crown Royal jingle, and dedicated Bloodbuzz Ohio to the newly crowned MLS Cup champions Toronto FC.  

After briefly exiting the stage, the band returned for a well-earned encore, effortlessly transitioning from Sleep Well Beast deep cut Dark Side Of The Gym to a spirited cover of Leonard Cohen’s mid-70s song Memories (the former’s title references a lyric from the latter). As he channeled the late Montreal poet at his lustiest, Berninger grinned from ear to ear, twisting his hips sock-hop-style. Saving the one-two punch of Mr. November and Terrible Love for last, the singer using the full length of his mic cord, disappeared into the audience before returning and standing on the drum kit.

For the finale, the band formed a line for an acoustic rendition of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, Berninger gleefully conducting the crowd singalong with his arms and pulling up a fan to sing the final chorus. The National might be a long way from their Brooklyn loft days, but their set proved that aging gracefully doesn’t require losing a sense of joy.

music@nowtoronto.com | @Max_Mertens

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