The Wall Leaned Away: The National at Detroit’s Masonic Temple

Temple Street is a line of blinking brakelights, but it doesn’t take too long to get to a parking lot about two blocks away from the theater. I pay 20 dollars to get in. I take my time choosing a parking spot, choosing one where I’m sure my car won’t be accidentally damaged or intentionally robbed.

On the walk back to the theater I get my first glimpse of the new Little Caesars Arena. I only see the northwest corner. If I didn’t know better I would assume it was a department store.

The Detroit Masonic Temple is a magnificent neo-gothic structure made mostly of limestone. It was constructed between 1920 and 1926 and is the largest building of its kind in the world. It houses three theaters, two ballrooms, a drill hall and a ritual tower for Shriner’s International. From the street, the place looks like it could be a city courthouse or the lair of some mid-level supervillain.

Even though I intentionally don’t arrive until 7:30 (the tickets say doors at 7), the show doesn’t actually start until 8. I stand in a line wrapping around the side of the theater and shuffle along while this couple behind me quietly complains about somebody’s stepfather in low voices that are ninety percent vocal fry. I take the steps one at a time and enter the theater.

My seat is under the balcony in the very last row on the very last corner of the section, just to the right of center stage. No one behind me or on my left. The carpet is red and the lights are yellow. The place has all the character you would expect of a 90 year old building. If I stand up, the shelf of the balcony cuts off a significant portion of the stage. There’s also a large, fat, load-bearing pillar just to my right. If I was sitting two or three seats to my right it would block my view entirely.

I’m the only person seated in my section for the entirety of the opener’s set. I figure no one has bought tickets because of the pillar. I decide that if no one shows up I’ll take the seat at the railing three rows down and get a better view.

A band called Daughter opens and I’m impressed, especially considering I’d shown up late hoping to miss them entirely. As they play I look up lyrics that catch my ear and add their albums and EPs to my Apple music account. Very pretty. Indie and ethereal.

The lead singer is British, the drummer is French and the guitarist is Swedish. (I might have the drummer and the guitarist’s nationalities switched) There’s another person on keyboards and bass, and I can’t tell if it’s a guy or a girl.

The songs are very atmospheric and other such words. I can’t come up with any poetic and witty descriptions of them except to say that it’s pleasant and sounds exactly what you’d imagine a female-led indie band to sound like — chimey guitars, keyboards, wistful soaring vocals, etc. I can hear their music in a trailer for a coming-of-age indie film or a sci-fi indie film or another type of indie film. I’m not trying to pooh-pooh their sound — they’ve clearly worked hard on it and it’s an impressive achievement.

“Sorry if we’re depressing you,” giggles the lead singer before the last song.

Between sets, a couple takes the seats three rows ahead of me, including the one that I was looking to snatch. I hope they don’t decide to stand up once The National comes on. If they do, my view will be significantly narrow.

I first heard of The National in 2008, when the drummer from my very first band showed me a few of their songs in my dorm room. I’m guessing the songs were from their album Boxer, now my favorite, which was released the previous year. I didn’t connect with them at the time, but I heard Mistaken for Strangers on a Youtube compilation a few years later and started listening to it enough to go buy Boxer and High Violet (which had just been released) from Best Buy. It took some dedicated listening, but by the end of that summer I “got” them and considered myself a fan. I’ve followed them since; fond memories include finding Alligator in one of the last FYE stores in Detroit while driving a truck for a hospice supplier, and hearing Don’t Swallow the Cap for the first time on the satellite radio in my mom’s minivan while on M14 one late spring night in 2013, going to Plymouth to pick up my drunk brother.

The stage backdrop is a large television screen split up into three horizontal rectangular blocks that run the length of the rear wall. The three screens are stacked on top of each other and move independently, showing various abstract colors and static visions as the band performs.

Before the show begins, the screens all show the view from a camera set up in the backstage hallway. When the band emerges from the dressing room everyone breaks into applause. The Dessner twins appear and stand around and the Devendorf brothers come out shortly after. When Matt Berninger steps out, immediately making for the stage, the theater lights up with cheers. He looks less a rock star and more like a popular professor or best-selling author.

To my relief, the people in front of me remain seated. The other rows in my section are only haphazardly filled. We have the emptiest section on the theater floor, as far as I can see. The rest of the theater looks sold out. The collective voice of the audience sounds slightly more female than male. I see a lot of girls with their boyfriends and husbands. Everyone is well behaved save one overzealous fellow who stands behind me and whistles piercingly and loudly through his fingers after every song directly into my left ear.

The National plays a snarky acoustic folk song over the PA for their entrance music. Google tells me it’s by Wally Pleasant, titled Ode to Detroit. Matt’s first words to us are about how they wanted to do a cover but didn’t have the time to learn it properly. They start with Nobody Else Will Be There.

I leave for a moment during Walk It Back (Matt introduces the song with “This is for Karl Rove. Fuck you, Karl.”) to get a hot dog and Diet Coke. When I return, two people have taken the seats right next to mine, so I slip into the row in front of my original seat, eat my hot dog and watch the show.

The National sound damn solid live and there’s really nothing much else to say. I can’t really describe them in a way that other, better writers haven’t already without sounding trite or boring. They’re just a good, lower-upper class indie rock band comfortably settled into middle age. They sound like they know their classical and their pop. The instrumental section is tight and robust. Matt’s vocals are mostly on key and on pitch, if not a little hesitant, especially on his upper range. He displays proper emotional effort and has a lot of energy for a 46 year old. Highlights for me include Don’t Swallow the Cap, Afraid of Everyone, Conversation 16, I Need My Girl, Secret Meeting, Slow Show and Bloodbuzz Ohio. They close the main set with About Today.

Detroit native and friend of the band Shara Worden comes out and joins them on Dark Side of the Gym, I Need My Girl, and a few others. At one point Matt compares trying to get a hug from Shara to Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy’s football. He does this after she’s left the stage.

The banter is limited to every three songs or so. Aaron Dessner mentions that Detroit is one of the first cities they played outside New York, doing a show at the Lager House back in the early 2000s. Matt thinks he barfed there once. Bryce Dessner and the Devendorf bros never speak, though drummer Bryan does wear a bright neon green hat that makes him visible even when the stage lights are down. Matt calls him a freak of nature at one point. Matt and Aaron also joke that Pixar is interested in a children’s book they’re writing, based on the song Day I Die.

All I can think while watching them is how Matt Berninger is the luckiest frontman in the world. He doesn’t have a conventionally good voice, and yet he landed in a band that compliments him in every way possible. The absolutely exquisite piano and guitar compositions of the Dessner twins coupled with the badass thumping rhythm section of the Devendorfs combine to form a sound any singer would kill to have behind them. In particular, I’ve always been a huge fan of Bryan Devendorf’s heavy use of his lower toms. I wrote a short essay once on Mistaken for Strangers back when I was first getting into them, and I mentioned that his drums sound like a factory slamming away. To be able to write your own lyrics and thoughts and melodies over those instrumentals is enough to make any wannabe positively glow with envy.

They have a truly organic sound, shaped and crafted by years on the road and in the studio, from making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. They are a tightly wound machine. It is worth the 45 dollars to see live. Several songs I never liked on the albums, like Secret Meeting, sound wonderful in person.

Matt’s stage presence is full of tension. He does a lot of herky-jerky Ian Curtisy dance moves. He thankfully only busts out his unsettling “I’m having a mental breakdown” scream once, on Turtleneck. He sounds most alluring in his lower register, which, through the state-of-the-art sound system, practically vibrates the walls and seats. His upper register is relatively intact early on, especially on Afraid of Everyone, but starts to get weak soon after. Matt doesn’t seem to like holding high notes for very long. He turns his voice into a sort of clipped bleating, losing a lot of the nuance and warmth that he has in the studio.

I leave during Born to Beg, the first encore song, looking to beat the traffic. The Internet shows they’ve been doing Terrible Love, Lemonworld and Mr. November as closers, none of which are songs I mind missing. I know I’ll see them again sometime.

My last view is of Matt, with his blonde curls and his white button-up shirt, standing with his arms raised to the ceiling as I descend the ramp to the exit doors. I see right down the crowded center rows to his tall frame bathed in a heaven of blue stage lights, singing, “I was born to beg for you.” He dedicates the song to his wife Carin. I snap a few pictures and take off.

Epilogue:

When I get home I’m extremely disappointed to discover that right after Born to Beg they did their version of Morning Dew, which is one of my favorite songs by them and probably one they won’t play should I come see them again. Other than that, I didn’t miss anything. They ended the show with Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.

Everything is a work in progress.

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