The National put on blood buzzing show at Summerfest

With lead singer Matt Berninger more inebriated than usual, Aaron Dessner keeps show smooth

· Jul 3, 2019 Tweet

Berninger wasn't perfect, yet The National still put on an impressive performance.
Ashley Steinberg/Summerfest

The Oasis Stage of Summerfest hosted The National for their final U.S. performance on their “I Am Easy To Find” tour in Milwaukee Sunday.

Lead singer Matt Berninger wasted no time getting wasted before taking the stage with Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Bryan and Scott Devendorf to “You Had Your Soul With You” off their latest release the tour is named after.

I Am Easy To Find may not be the band’s best, but decent performances came from “Oblivions” and “Where Is Her Head.” Weak cuts from the new album built up suspense for bigger hits like “Don’t Swallow the Cap” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” 

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The one-two punch highlighted Berninger’s baritone crooning under blood red stage lights before falling back to drearily filler tracks, such as “The Pull of You” and “So Far, So Fast.”

With red solo cup in hand — or at the very least within effortless reaching distance — Berninger appeared to be in control. The lead singer is known for drinking during concerts, yet never lets being intoxicated stop him from performing at a high level.

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Berninger frequently enjoyed the contents inside his cup on stage during a handful of songs into the set, ironically noting he was playing at the Miller Lite branded venue. 

“Are you guys seeing all these flying Miller Lite signs now?” he asked.

The crowd did see the signs Berninger, the signs of losing sobriety. 

Berninger looks at his fans during the solo of “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness”
Ashley Steinberg/Summerfest

What is arguably the group’s most entertaining song to perform — “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” — became difficult for Berninger. The man point blank messed up his own lyrics during the first verse, leading to some members of the crowd to point and call the singer out for the miscue.

Berninger recovered quickly, singing back in rhythm without stopping. It was at this point his comrades sat the rest of the song out. The satisfying indie rock anthem fell flat, Scott Devendorf and Aaron Dessner missed out on delivering the delicious solo they shine in. 

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The band would check back in for “Day I Die,” making the pair of lovely backup vocalists next to Berninger the only unblemished performers on stage. Aaron Dessner regularly and consistently shred as lead guitar, saving songs from appearing tired out or at risk of a Berninger stumble. 

While losing his ability to stand in place, Berninger and company used “Pink Rabbits” to bring out all the emotions from the Milwaukee crowd. The wave of sorrow The National fans seek out was accentuated when the ballad was followed by an impressive performance of “I Am Easy to Find.” The live rendition is marginally better than the studio recording, a testament to the ability of the band to still deliver when not everything is perfect.

Indie rock’s hottest band gave Summerfest something to buzz about.
Ashley Steinberg/Summerfest

The lead single “Rylan,” the prized single of I Am Easy to Find, followed an average performance of “Fake Empire.” At this point, The National’s set was running far longer than anticipated. This would almost guarantee to leave the crowd feeling spoiled, yet the theme of force feeding filler tracks from the new album remained the same with “Light Years.”

Berninger joined the crowd in a guided and buzzed stumble before finally raising his voice beyond his usual baritone for “Mr. November.” The now drunk vocalist finished the set off with “Terrible Love” before walking off to hedged applause.

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Where The National thrived at Eaux Claires at roughly the same time last year, the band saw Summerfest as the finish line behind them, not needing to deliver the same high level show they did earlier in their tour. 

Noted pals of Bon Iver, fans of The National in attendance that missed out on songs like “About Today,” “Sorrow,” “Born to Beg,” “Carin at the Liquor Store,” “Dark Side of the Gym,” “Fireproof” and most ironically, “Hard to Find” should plan on attending Eaux Claires when the festival returns in 2020 in hopes the group will perform the superior songs up north. 

The pure talent and standard execution of a The National performance still held great value in Milwaukee, yet the missed opportunities still ring. Maybe the band will reevaluate and adjust their touring set-list not to what is most convenient to perform, but what is most enjoyable to play and be heard. 

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