Few performers can transfix a crowd quite like Matt Berninger. After 20 years of touring as the lead singer/songwriter of indie rock mainstays the National, he's managed to channel his vulnerable, poet laureate persona into veritable rock star swagger.
Ambling about the stage yesterday evening (November 16) as part of his new project EL VY, Berninger showed that he could live up to — and even reach beyond — the crowd's high expectations. Paired with multi-instrumentalist Brent Knopf's sharp production and steady, rippled beats, both musicians showed the sold-out crowd just how powerful a so-called "side-project" could be.
Touring in promotion of their debut LP, Return to the Moon, the band took to the stark Fairmount Theatre stage dressed almost entirely in white. Backed by Wye Oak's Andy Stack on drums, and long-time Knopf collaborator Matt Sheehy on bass, EL VY launched into their set with the slow-burner "Careless." Bathed in blue and pink hues, Berninger mumbled, "I don't know what you want from me / It's agony" in his rich baritone, the crowd hanging off his every word. Followed by "It's a Game," it became clear that they had placed their slower songs at the beginning — the first part of their set moved languidly, serving as a kind of foreplay for the bigger, more rambunctious tracks to come.
Focused less on pleasing the crowd and more on perfecting the songs, Knopf carried the band's weight throughout the set, letting Berninger charm the crowd with his mumbled, incoherent banter as he laid down the groundwork for each track, his eyes looking constantly towards the other musicians, waiting for his cue. As the set progressed, the solemn tone of the first half was lifted to reveal a more upbeat, almost disco-like show, the expertly timed lights serving as an integral part of the band's performance as a whole.
Moving into their singles, "Return to the Moon" and "Paul is Alive," the band threw a curveball with an infectious cover of the Fine Young Cannibals' "You Drive Me Crazy." Falling to his knees and pressing his forehead to a few fans' in the process, Berninger's performance was funky, campy and undeniably electric, his voice adding a distinct weight to the otherwise upbeat song.
Followed shortly by the seductive "I'm the Man to Be," and show closer "Need a Friend," EL VY ended on a high note, even when telling the crowd that there would be no encore, "because we literally have no more songs to play." As the room emptied only an hour after EL VY took to the stage, a sing-along of "You Drive Me Crazy" could be heard well down the street.