The National with Indigo Sparke at The Riverside Theater in Milwaukee – Review and Photos

Photos and Review by Stephen Bloch

For over 20 years, The National – hailing out of Cincinnati, OH – have had a steady presence in the indie rock scene. They have been both festival regulars as well as touring to support their album releases. They don’t really settle on any one sound that defines them other than frontman’s Matt Berninger’s distinct baritone voice, which was certainly showcased on Friday at Milwaukee’s historic Riverside Theater (a regular stop for the band if you take away the 2+ year COVID pause).

Their “Summer 2022” tour isn’t associated with a new release, but that didn’t stop devoted fans from lining up early and packing in tight. They knew they would get an inspired show with hits, deep cuts, and new material presumably destined for their late 2022/early 2023 release. Among them is “Weird Goodbyes,” a collaboration with Bon Iver, which made its way into the encore. Their entire catalog was represented on Friday night.

The band didn’t take any chances by starting slow to warm the crowd up, launching into the holy trinity of “Don’t Swallow the Cap”>>”Mistaken for Strangers”>>”Bloodbuzz Ohio,” all standout tracks from Trouble Will Find Me, Boxer, and High Violet respectively. The band was encased in color-changing horizontal and vertical light bars, almost serving as a frame for a work of art. Behind the band were overlapping images of live play, moving psychedelic blobs, and at times poignant lyrics. Certainly a step up from what many indie bands bring in terms of production.

In a non-formulaic way, the band kept things moving through the opening 19 song set with little banter, except for an occasional thank you or a signal to clap from one of the Dessner brothers.  The only pattern that really develops in a show by The National is Bryan Devendorf’s trademark drum hits to open songs.  Seasoned fans can peg what they’re playing in the first five seconds from Devendorf’s work.  He’s not just fill, he’s the heart of the band in many respects (although he’s often tucked away in the dark). Highlights of the set included a few rarities in “Carin at the Liquor Store,” “Apartment Story,” and “Rylan,” where the band was joined by the beautiful Indigo Sparke. The set closed with their most recognizable track, “Fake Empire,” off of Boxer.

The night closed with a four song encore, opening with their new track with Bon Iver, followed by another holy trinity of The National: “Mr. November,” “Terrible Love,” and a sans mic rendition of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.”

The band’s songs, both new and old, are both powerful and vulnerable. Berninger and Co. fluctuate between shy and ‘in your face.’ When ‘in your face’ is on tap, Berniger engages in a tight rope act of walking across the top of the barricade and then traveling 100+ feet with his mic to greet fans (he has a full time cord jockey ready to follow and was kept busy with three visits in this show). This doesn’t appear to be an act. It is who they are and why they have such a broad appeal. Those seeking ‘in your face’ rock, brooding indie, or date night singalongs/embraces get what they want and then some. This isn’t a formulaic band, but they also don’t try to reinvent themselves when playing live. That’s a good thing and they have it down really well.

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