They started out with “I Should Live in Salt” and the mixers scrambled to get the sound balance right. By the time the band got through “Anyone’s Ghost” and onto “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” the mix was right and we could hear every instrument — guitars, trombone, bass, and the band’s signature percussion.
Berninger lightened the somber atmosphere generated by the songs with jokes in between songs, joking that The National Theatre has a hot tub backstage. “It’s rare to play at a place with a hot tub backstage,” he said. “My daughter’s been having a great time splashing around in it. As I watched her, I remembered a story about Snoop Dogg, who apparently also had a great time in that hot tub.” Berninger also commented on the band’s recent release of a track written for popular television show Game of Thrones, admitting that he prefers to watch The Mindy Project instead. When stage conversation dissolved into a discussion of Game of Thrones, it was guitarist Aaron Dessner who kept the band on track, asking, “Are we going to keep talking about TV or…?”
His comment launched the band into “This Is The Last Time,” a song with a lazy pace that features one of my favorite couplets from the new album: “Oh, don’t tell anyone I’m here / I’ve got Tylenol and beer.” The band also played two of my favorites: “All the Wine,” a song whose surreal lyrics continue to delight and puzzle me, and “Pink Rabbits” a hypnotic track near the end of their new album that has captivated my attention for the past few weeks.
Berninger’s drunken antics escalated as he drained a bottle of Chardonnay in between songs. After smashing a mic stand during “Graceless,” Berninger handed it into the crowd, beginning a series of events that thrilled the crowd. They ended with “Fake Empire,” sending my mind racing back to the first time I heard them, following a link Billy sent me via Facebook when I was snowed in at my house for a week during the 11th grade. I bought the album and kept it on repeat until the snow melted. The National played the longest encore I’ve ever seen (four songs), and during “Mr. November,” Berninger leapt into the crowd. We learned after the fact that he made his way all the way back to the bar, which explained where he got the Bacardi bottle that he handed to a girl standing near me. At the time, Nora and I tried in vain to see where Berninger had ended up before returning our attention to the rest of the band onstage, particularly Aaron Dessner who had spent the majority of the show playing directly in front of us. In a crowd of turned heads, we were among the few who paid attention to the rest of the band, which worked to our advantage moments later.
Taking the stage again, Berninger picked up the nearly-empty bottle of wine and approached our section of the stage. I leaned out, and much to my surprise, my fingers closed around the cold glass. I saw Berninger smile as Nora and I pulled the bottle into our possession.
The show ended with an acoustic singalong to “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” The crowd sang with the band, who stood in a line onstage, lit simply with bare white lights. Immediately after, as band members began to leave the stage, Aaron Dessner ripped up the set list and leaned over the stage, making eye contact with Nora and I. In a stroke of unbelievable luck, he handed us the set list and a yellow guitar pick despite the fact that we had already received the bottle of Chardonnay. Minds completely in agreement, we turned to Will, who was still standing behind us. “This is for you,” Nora said, handing him the bottle.
We ran into Will again in the line for merchandise, where he and Nora bought t-shirts. An older man in line behind us admired the bottle and stepped in when a security guard barked that Will couldn’t take it with him. “The lead singer gave this to him,” the man said authoritatively. I felt myself shrink back from the security guard’s authority. “Sorry, Virginia ABC rules,” the security guard snapped. “I can’t let you leave with that. You’re going to have to set it right here.” He pointed to a table near the door.
I felt like such a kid, totally unsure of what to do or how to explain why this mostly empty wine bottle was significant to someone who had more important concerns (i.e. doing his job), but the man we met in line pulled another National Theatre employee into the conversation. “The lead singer did give that to him,” the other employee confirmed. “It’s okay.” The security guard disappeared while Will dumped the remaining wine into a water fountain and wrapped it in his new t-shirt.
Our brief friendship with Will came to an end outside where we wished him safe travels and thanked him again for letting us trade spots, the act of kindness that had seemed to charm the night entirely. To borrow a phrase from my friend Nessa, Nora and I were completely floating. Unwilling to let the night end, we walked around the corner to where a small group of fans had gathered outside of the band’s tour busses. (Sorry, Mom.) Gradually, people gave up and went home; we decided to set a time limit and hope that the band would head out to their busses by then.
Finally, it was down to us, a couple, and a few guys. We were standing a little aside in the lighted entry way of the Richmond Convention Center, watching people wheel trunks of equipment into a waiting van, when suddenly we saw the group surge across the street toward the theater’s back door. More than anything, we wanted to thank them for a great show and for the wonderful souvenirs. Naturally, we were in the way of the theater employees trying to pack up the remaining equipment, so Aaron and Bryce Dessler graciously accompanied us across the street.
“You guys are still here?” Aaron said to Nora and I. “You remembered us!” Nora said. “Of course,” he replied. “You guys are so cute.”
I’m not even making that up. As Nora aptly put it: “I’m still mad cheesin’.”
The only blot on this portion of the evening was a pushy fake fan who pulled a dozen vinyls out of his bag and instructed the Desslers to sign them in different colors. “Who should I make this out to?” Bryce asked. “Uh –” the man stammered, which to me revealed that he most likely wanted to sell them on eBay. Perhaps feeling the need to show some personal connection, he asked that the Desslers sign his ticket. “This is gonna cock dock me,” he boasted. “I’ve got a girl who loves you guys.”
“Oh,” Bryce answered. “Shit.”
There are several ways a person can color the phrase “oh shit” by varying the intonation: 1) “Oh SHIT,” an exclamation of surprise or horror; 2) “Oh, shit,” a phrase uttered in disappointment; or, 3) “Oh…shit,” where the person or situation in general is equated with “shit.” Personally, I felt that the third intonation was most appropriate in this situation, but only the speaker knows his intended intonation.
Nora and I hung around for a little while and received a few signatures, but the Desslers were obviously exhausted. As the other fans clung on, insisting on one more photo! one more signature! we wished them safe travels and headed home.
It was an especially fun and lucky night to say the least. What I’ve learned from my year of concerts is simple: Performance is the accumulation of years of incredibly hard work. Yelling out requests, showing up wasted, demanding signatures — all of those behaviors demean the hard work artists put into their shows. In concerts and in life, being low-key and grateful seems to work out well for everyone.