BERKELEY — The National frontman Matt Berninger used to be nervous on stage. He’s even talked about the awkwardness of not knowing what to do with his hands. But Tuesday at the Greek Theatre, Berninger was in peak rock star mode, and showed how he could accomplish that transformation without giving up any of his idiosyncratic awkwardness—one cocktail at a time.
On the second of a two-night stand in Berkeley, Berninger spent more time interacting with the crowd than with his bandmates. He accepted signs and gifts, climbed down from the stage to talk to fans during seemingly every extended solo by Bryce and Aaron Dessner, and went Oprah on the crowd, tossing a microphone, a microphone stand and a full glass of alcoholic beverage to the front row (as customary he had one in his hand for most of the night). He also endorsed a 10-year-old girl named Madison for president.
Like the show the previous night, Tuesday’s concert was 11 months in the making, with the original dates smoked out by the North Bay Firestorm. While on the previous night the band focused primarily on 2017 album Sleep Well Beast, on Tuesday it brought back some of the classics and tunes from its previous two albums, 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me and 2010’s High Violet.
The National did kick things off with its newest cut, “Light Years,” as well as “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” “Walk It Back” and “Guilty Party,” off Sleep Well Beast. Berninger, hands in his pockets, dedicated the show to The National’s tour manager and then danced at the lip of the stage before lying down on stomach, making faces to the cameras and collecting the first of several fan-made signs.
He hopped down from the stage, intensely hugged one fan and screamed a verse right into the fan’s face. “Walk It Back” grew from a slowly-building, somber soliloquy to a rapturous climax; before receding again; a signature of The National sound. On the next song he again came down to the front row, exchanged a few words, and returned with a fan’s sign and cell phone. Apparently, at the previous show, the fan gave Berninger his phone and asked him to shoot a video. After the show the phone died. That’s what the Tuesday sign explained. Berninger appeared to grumble, and then recorded himself yet again before lobbing the phone back to the masses.
Following the similarly melancholic stress releasers “I Should Live In Salt” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” someone tossed Berninger a bootleg copy of some Johnny Cash songs. This prompted him to tell a story about how he and a couple of bandmates once tried to encourage Guided By Voices to play a cover by leaving a mixtape in their cooler, only to have their gesture ignored. At this point, the concert was six songs in and Matt Berninger was just getting started.
The raucous tilt of High Violet track “Afraid of Everyone” and reverent aura of Trouble Will Find Me cut “I Need My Girl” provided contrasting highlights Tuesday. The latter may be one of the most underrated familial love songs of this century, and The National, particularly the Dessners and the frontman’s rich baritone, always does it justice.
Following “This Is the Last Time” and “Wasp Nest,” Berninger spotted a young girl in the audience—children younger than 10 had free admission to this show so there were quite a few in the crowd—and climbed down from the stage yet again to get her name and say hi.
He then endorsed the girl, Madison, as the “next freely elected president of the United States.
“Unless you guys vote in a [few] weeks, you’ll be waiting longer for Madison,” Berninger said. “I think Madison and Sally Yates would make a good team.”
The following track, “Sorrow,” was nearly dedicated to Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) as a joke before Berninger cut himself off.
The band followed rarely played cut “Apartment Story,” off 2005’s Boxer, with “Pink Rabbits,” “England” and “Day I Die.” On the latter, the frontman climbed over the barricade and made his way through the sea of fans. A couple of songs later, he aborted the start of “Fake Empire” to make sure that no one was hurt by a projectile thrown by a fan.
“Tell me that didn’t hit a security guard,” he said just as he was to start the first verse.
Several more jokes later, the effectiveness of which varied, The National arrived at the encore. The band skipped “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” and instead played “Lemonworld,” “Mr. November” (with Berninger striking his best Richard Nixon pose), and “Terrible Love.” For the conclusion, while his bandmates played fan favorite “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” Berninger turned his mic around toward the fans and let them handle every single lyric. As a whole, the crowd didn’t miss a word.
The frontman celebrated by pouring some beverages in plastic cups. The first he handed to a fan. The second he attempted to toss. After the splash landing, he instead handed his mic to someone in the first row, and then then sent a mic stand crowd-surfing into the abyss.
Singer-songwriter Cat Power, wafting a stick of incense, opened the concert with a 45-minute set of moody jazz-inflected indie rock. After opening with the sparse balladry of “He Turns Down” she cruised effortlessly through new material and some older tracks, like the jazzy “Woman,” “Stay” and “Cross Bones Style.” Cat Power’s pianist played melody and lead, while a drummer and guitarist created a hum that played with mood as much as it did with harmony and rhythm.
Cat Power closed with older cut “Manhattan,” the most upbeat track of the set, despite the bittersweet lyrics (“All the friends we use to know/ They come and go”). Afterward, she saluted the crowd, and then signaled by driving her fist into her chin as she walked off, as if to say, “chin up!”