A few songs into the National's sold-out set at the Electric Factory on Friday night, front man Matt Berninger apologized to someone in the crowd. Berninger had forgotten the fan's name, but he remembered his earlier request for help in proposing to his girlfriend during the show.
"The last time we tried that, in France, the girl said no," Berninger explained with a smile. "It was awkward for everyone, so we don't do that anymore."
On record, the Brooklyn-based quintet hardly sounds like wedding bells. With an ear for Springsteen-style Americana and British post-punk, the National crafts dimly lit, minor-key laments for getting older, losing hope, and finding oneself amid premature midlife crises. With a glance at his younger days, Berninger-as-lyricist seems most inspired by the claustrophobia of dingy bars and apartment life. One of his shouted refrains Friday was "I'm so sorry for everything," while for another he despaired, "I'm afraid of everyone." It'd be hard to blame the Frenchwoman for having felt none too lovey-dovey.
But it is worth noting that the National is not the kind of live band that simply reprises its recordings. At the Electric Factory, brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner pointedly raised the stakes, injecting "Squalor Victoria" and Obama campaign anthem "Fake Empire" with a double dose of furious rock-and-roll guitar. And the addition of two trumpeters and multi-instrumentalist Padma Newsome provided extra momentum. Violin in hand, Newsome expanded "Racing Like a Pro" in length and beauty and expertly guided the haunting deep cut "Cherry Tree" to its spine-tingling climax.
Berninger carried the familiar weight of his dour, beer-soaked baritone, yet often tore into surprisingly lithe, larynx-lacerating screams. Occasionally lacking grace but dripping charisma, he clung to his microphone stand as if it were all he had left at one moment, and spun from it like a live wire the next.
Thankfully, the band offered frequent respites with warm and personable stage banter. The most memorable moment came late in the set, when Berninger darted backstage for a bathroom break before returning to crack wise about his unique privileges in the band.
"I feel better now," he reassured the crowd. Maybe not so romantic but definitely human.