Review: The National Rocks Murat Theatre

A day after playing Lollapalooza’s main stage in Chicago, the Brooklyn-based band brings an impressive set to Old National Centre in Indianapolis.

I went into this show expecting to see a profusion of hipsters with the occasional guy obsessed with hearing excellent guitar tone and overall sound. Indeed, that’s exactly what I saw. However, that was not the majority of the turnout. The crowd was a completely mixed bag. The National appeals to a range of music fans, from those stubborn listeners who refuse to come up from the underground indie-rock scene all the way to the modern mainstream listeners hoping to cleanse their aural palates.

Regardless, all National fans know what to expect when spinning one of their records—excellent musicianship accompanied by natural warm tones and a somber but sweet vocal delivery. The majority of these songs provide mellow-rock moodiness that begs for a beer and a listening party with friends. While all of that held true for this live show, it was also amped up a significant notch.

The concert kicked off with the brooding metaphors in “I Should Live in Salt,” also the first track on The National’s newest record, Trouble Will Find Me. Crowd favorite “Bloodbuzz Ohio” started just two songs later, and then the room’s energy went from chill to full-on rock show. Frontman Matt Berninger, he of the wine-drenched baritone, literally screamed with emotion through tracks such as “Sea Of Love” and “Graceless.” All of the rockier songs made for marriages of loud guitars, commanding vocals, gleeful crowds, and a stunning light show. But the performance never crossed the line into being over the top. Everything was well managed and felt right, including the small brass section. Generally, this is well-mannered rock for the masses.

Softer songs still found their place throughout, as the straightforward and guitar-inviting “I Need My Girl” drew all lovers’ attention in the theater, while the end of the encore was a real treat. The National played the reflective “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” completely unplugged as the captive crowd sang along to every word.

The National is one of the biggest indie-rock acts in the industry, to the wonder of no one who took in this performance. Bespectacled at 42 years old, Berninger doesn’t need to jump around on stage to own an audience’s attention. Instead, he continually paces back and forth with a demanding vibe. It felt as though he would truly put himself right back in the moment of every track’s essence. And as the abstract lighting poured over him repeatedly, it hung a hauntingly beautiful feeling in the room. It felt like you could reach out and touch his raw, emotional persona. It was all so tangible.

That’s what music is about, especially when hearing it and seeing it live. Right now, The National is on another level in its genre. What to say? The fawning is deserved.

Highlight of the night: During the encore, Berninger strolled over the backs of theater seats through the crowd as he sang “Mr. November,” a song off the band’s 2005 breakthrough Alligator. Or perhaps the true highlight arrived when he handed a bottle of wine to a couple in the front row. Always tasteful, these guys.