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A drizzle fell over the Santa Barbara Bowl as the tech crew set up for indie rock band The National. Portugal. The Man had just left the stage after closing with a mashup of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” and its own “Purple Yellow Red and Blue.” Rain was no match for the crowd, though my once-coherent notes bled little rivers across my notebook.
The lights flickered from blue to red to green to purple as the audience trickled in and out, debating whether to get coffee or beer — did they want to be warm inside or outside? To my right, an elderly woman lit a joint. To my left, an elementary school-aged child danced on his dad’s shoulders.
The rain came to a halt, the lights dimmed and the crowd roared. But The National lead singer Matt Berninger and his band weren’t taking the stage without a grand entrance. The screen behind the band’s setup was illuminated with footage from past shows, a montage of the band’s more than 10-year run.
And there they were. The amphitheater erupted. First with cheers, then with “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” ramping up the energy as we settled in for an evening of what came pretty close to perfection.
I’ll confess: I was ecstatic to see The National perform. They’ve topped my concert bucket list since a high school boyfriend gave me a copy of “Boxer” for my birthday. So this concert was the perfect dose of nostalgia and relevance. Though they’ve been in the music world since 2001, the band has often been overshadowed by super success stories such as The Strokes and Interpol. This year, Trouble Will Find Me solidified their place in alternative rock.
They quickly transitioned into “I Should Live in Salt” and a wave of emotion swept the audience. The song, lead singer Berninger said in an NPR interview, is about his brother. But to the untrained ear, it makes a great breakup song.
The night continued, mostly with tracks from Trouble will Find Me and High Violet, the band’s most recent albums.
“It’s so beautiful here,” Berninger said at one point, as the mist returned to the Santa Barbara Bowl and the lights colored the raindrops. “Thank you so much.”
As they got settled on stage, it became clear these veterans were too mature to dance or stage dive or rely on cliché concert behavior. So Berninger resorted to pacing. Like a white rabbit, he paced the stage, stopping occasionally to stand atop the speakers and put his back to the audience, his hands in the air as though he was in awe of his band just as much as the crowd was. There might not be a cooler frontman out there.
The rain got heavier around “Abel,” and literal fair weather fans made their way to the exit. But I stayed firmly in my seat under the comfort of the rain jacket I conveniently stash in my car for “emergencies.” Joseph Pack, the Mustang News photographer who accompanied me, had forgotten a jacket, but I wasn’t about to concede and leave. I knew what this show closed with, thanks to the set list that fell on the ground by the tech tables I was seated near.
“How long are we gonna stay in this rain before we call it?” Pack asked.
But the drizzle turned into rain and the rain turned into a downpour as the entire audience sang along to “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” the drums matching the cadence of the rain nearly perfectly.
The encore? “Mr. November,” “Terrible Love” and an acoustic version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.”
And the audience and Mother Nature cried.