As The National lead singer Matt Berninger held up his drink between songs, he said being in Pittsburgh makes him feel like he’s “almost home.”
The Cincinnati-based band played the outdoor venue at Stage AE Saturday to a full crowd of fans — mostly young adults in their twenties and thirties, many of whom were dedicated enough to be sporting band clothing. The National is touring for their latest album, “Sleep Well Beast,” which was released Sept. 8, and played most of the album across the course of the 22-song set.
Before The National even hit the stage, the crowd was graced with the presence of indie darling Daughter, who is on a short tour with The National. Daughter played a short eight-song set primarily composed of slow-ambient tracks, but closed with the jam “Fossa,” which allowed the band to show off their more versatile guitar skills.
The National opened to an audience that was quiet but rapt with attention. Berninger seemed to be feeding on the anxiety of the crowd, walking up to the foot of the stage and just staring blankly out into the sea of unfamiliar faces.
Even the scene set as the band came out contributed to these nerves — a display of lights and a screen done in moody blues and grays began playing over the stage as soon as the crew started setting up for the band. There was even a timer that started counting up and tracking the minutes that passed as the crowd waited for the band after Daughter. No one knew what minute the timer was counting up to, but everyone was waiting for it to stop.
The the air of nervousness is fitting — the band’s new album is a stressful one. The National always deals with dark themes in their music, but “Sleep Well Beast,” could win the prize for some of their most anxiety-inducing tracks.
The opening song of the album, “Nobody Else Will Be There” — also used to open the show — deals with the fear of being alone with a person you care about, and Berninger’s performance of it felt reserved.
In fact, the first few songs of the set all felt somewhat reserved. But the show hit its stride five songs in when the band played a sequence of “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” a hit from their 2013 album “Trouble Will Find Me,” followed by “Afraid of Everyone,” from their 2010 album “High Violet.”
The crowd ate up the older songs, and Berninger played into it. He tossed his drink high into the air in a momentary loss of control, then apologized before beginning the next song.
The concert continued at its heightened pace with a good mix of classics and tracks from the new album, the tension remaining high in the crowd as Berninger gave his all over to the music.
After the band finished playing “Day I Die” — a track from the new album reflecting on what one will achieve in a lifetime — Berninger thanked the audience and exited the stage then almost immediately came back out to keep playing.
He apologized to the crowd — he unknowingly left the stage a song early and thought he was playing the encore, but they weren’t actually there yet. Everyone forgave him easily, happy to have the band keep playing.
The tension built up over the course of the show finally found its release in the encore. Sudden loud bangs rang out through the venue near the end of the concert. But after immediate reactions of panic and questioning whispers in the crowd as to what it could be, people settled down and realized it was just fireworks shooting from the Penguins game.
As the sky lit up, the band went into “Mr. November,” and Berninger lept earnestly into the crowd. As a member of the crew carefully fed him wire from the mic, Berninger tore through the people, singing directly to them as the crowd got the loudest it had been all night, cheering and shouting the lyrics back to the band.
Once Berninger made it back to the stage, the band closed out the show with “Terrible Love,” the song that stands out as probably their biggest mainstream hit. But “Mr. November” remained the climax of the concert — the final song served instead as the falling action for the crowd to calm down before ending the night.