North Adams, Mass.
June 11, 2016
Review and photos by Seth Rogovoy
(NORTH ADAMS, Mass.) – If there’s one criticism often lodged at indie-rock avatars The National, it’s that, at least on record, their music tends to be homogenous – moody, dark, soundalike mid-tempo rockers, claustrophobic to the point of depressive. Lead singer Matt Berninger’s deep, baritone vocals, with a limited range, dominate the sound. This could well be why they appeal to so many fans – over 6,000 attended their concert at MASS MoCA on Saturday night, an all-time record for a single-day event at the cultural laboratory – and why others may be hesitant to embrace fully the group.
At MASS MoCA, however, the core quintet, expanded to include a horn section and other musicians, added dynamics and colors and textures that, while not exploding the group’s distinctive aesthetic, opened up the songs and made them soar through the night, so that this concert stood shoulder-to-shoulder with previous high marks for Joe’s Field shows, including Beck and Wilco.
Those horns helped a lot, as did the terrific sound mix, with viscerally booming bass and drums, and guitars that rang and chime almost to an Edge-like U2 sound. The concert’s pacing was near-perfect, the group blasting out of the gate with three crowd favorites and interspersing others throughout the evening, in between deeper cuts, a good selection of new songs (the last National album was released in 2013 so the group is long overdue for a follow-up), and at least one song that nodded to the Grateful Dead and the group’s role in a recent Dead tribute charity album.
The group made ample use of more open-ended arrangements, with instrumental drop-outs, pauses, false endings, solos, and a terrific lighting design that included a gauzy video backdrop. It was a concert made for a festival-like setting, and it succeeded greatly at that.
Speaking of charity, this concert was a one-off – the National is not touring anywhere in the Northeast this year, but they banded together on this program to benefit the Hawthorne Valley Association in Ghent, N.Y., and MASS MoCA itself.