The National, like so many of their counterparts, these indie rock superstars just scream “serious.” Matt Berninger’s Cure-esque vocals and violent-yet-oddly-romantic lyrics. Bryan Devendorf’s powerful, staccato drums. The Dessner twins’ dual guitar attack. It all comes together to form an intense, evocative sound meant to keep you at the edge of your seat. Did I mention their stage presence? Well, it amplifies the emotional intensity of their music tenfold. There’s no joking here. This is the band’s image. And, as we all know, image is everything. But what happens when the facade wears off?
The recent documentary Mistaken for Strangers was a shot to the gut for National fans. Here they were, the brooders themselves, poking fun at themselves. Who are these guys? Are they actually peeling a layer of the onion away, or was this all an one-off, elaborate ruse?
Their headlining slot at Eaux Claires proved that Mistaken for Strangers was no joke. They took the remains of the onion and diced that shit up. Matt Berninger, who undoubtedly spent the day saucing with his miscreant-cum-director brother Tom, couldn’t remember any of the words to his songs. Despite a false start and numerous fumbles, Berninger oddly seemed to be in his element. What do you want to do when you’re hammered? Be with your friends, of course.
And out they came. First Sufjan Stevens, decked out in a tiger cutoff and his trademark trucker hat, appeared onstage and cooed his way through powerful (albeit nonsensical) renditions of “Afraid of Everyone” and “I Need My Girl.” Ragnar Kjartansson, the Icelandic performance artist responsible for their 6-hour MoMA performance of “Sorrow,” joined for said song. Kjartansson, armed with a bevy of colorful scarves and terrifying dance moves, made an absolute mockery of the song with a comically joyful verse. “This is supposed to be a fucking sad song! What are you doing?” Berninger quipped. By the time Justin Vernon hopped on stage for “Slow Show,” the Matt Berninger Comedy Hour was in full effect, as he immediately chided him for his fashion choices (“Hey, no shorts on this stage!”).
Berninger was energized by his buds (and a fresh bottle of red) and appeared extremely loose, despite his performance woes. As it turns out, he didn’t need to remember the words. While not the pitch perfect show we all expected, this was a whole different animal, and really just fed into the communal vibe of the festival. So, what did it all mean? Did seeing this notoriously self-serious band lighten up ruin the experience of seeing them? Quite the opposite, actually — it humanized them. The whole audience came away with a much different (and shall I say better?) understanding of the band. Images be damned.
Photos By: Mike Diskin
Review By: Evan Yerega