Review, photos, videos: The National tests new material at Greek Theatre

The National, Matt Berninger

Photos: Nick DeCicco and Roman Gokhman

BERKELEY — Brooklyn rock group The National performed six new songs Friday night during a stop at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, but the show wasn’t without its rough spots.

While the new material, presumably for an in-progress seventh full-length album, often hit somber notes, lead singer Matt Berninger’s honeyed baritone wasn’t hitting all of its usual notes, sometimes sounding more like a pained yelp, as it did during “Pink Rabbits.”

That didn’t diminish his theatrics. He still darted through the crowd on “Mr. November” and croaked out the dramatic finish to “Squalor Victoria.” However, it did leave the Brooklyn-via-Ohio indie rock quintet feeling like it wasn’t quite at full power.

They peppered the set with moody new material. New songs run the gamut from slow burners (“Roman Candle,” “Prom Song 13th Century”) to midtempo rockers (“Sometimes I Don’t Think”) to “It’s Just the Light/The Lights,” the best fresh material of the night. The song built to a showy finish, with soaring guitar work from Bryce Dessner that wasn’t flashy, but pushed the song higher.

Berninger joked about the working titles of the new songs throughout the night, introducing “Roman Candle” as having several parenthetical titles, too. Later, introducing “It’s Just the Light,” he joked, “I give that title a B-minus.”

New stuff made up one-third of the show if we include the band’s rendition of “Morning Dew” from the 59-track “Day of the Dead” compilation, a collection of Grateful Dead covers curated by The National’s identical guitar-playing twins, Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Its finale felt explosive and triumphant in the distinct way that The National can keep building layers onto a song until it explodes.

Berninger worked to power through his vocal troubles. “Slow Show,” a moody deep cut from 2007’s Boxer, worked well amid the murky new material and also fit the singer’s restrained voice. On “Sea of Love,” he went for broke, shouting the repeated phrase “I see you rushing down” with his voice fraying.

The band also deployed a trio of vertical, rectangular video screens that worked less to show the group in action on stage than to add to the mood and tone of each song. Most commonly, swirls of color splashed with watery or smoky effects and golden orbs cascaded down as they played “England.”

Even though the band may not have been at the top of its game, The National still gave its Berkeley stop a strong effort.

Folk soul trio The Lone Bellow opened the concert with a 45-minute set that included The National’s horn section and a guess appearance by Aaron Dressner, who produced their most-recent album.

Don’t Swallow the Cap
I Should Live in Salt
Bloodbuzz Ohio
Checking Out
Afraid of Everyone
Squalor Victoria
I Need My Girl
This Is the Last Time
Sometimes I Don’t Think
Can’t You Find a Way
Sea of Love
Slow Show
It’s Just the Light
Pink Rabbits
Morning Dew
Fake Empire
The Day I Die

Prom Song 13th Century
Mr. November
Terrible Love

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