The National Yonge and Dundas Square, Toronto ON, June 14

The National Yonge and Dundas Square, Toronto ON, June 14
Photo: Carrie Musgrave
For the National's free NXNE gig, Yonge and Dundas overflowed with people; from mega-fans and a hodgepodge of festivalgoers to mall shoppers and curious passers-by, it was a diverse, traffic-stopping crowd, which is what made the show's conclusion so compelling. Wrapping up the encore, Matt Berninger and company played a stunning, unplugged — literally, save the mic — audience-silencing take on "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks."

They've pulled the trick off many, many times before, but given the venue it was particularly astonishing, though not entirely surprising. The National's career has been all about slow builds and their NXNE outing was a feat of syntax and pacing that deftly mixed bombastic and quiet moments. So, a tender "I Need My Girl" — based around a pretty little guitar run and a laidback, melancholy Berninger — followed a scorching, sped-up "Squalor Victoria." "This is the Last Time" waded in slowly with restrained bass notes before drummer Bryan Devendorf — an all-star throughout — quickened the pace, setting up Berninger for a little unhinged yelping and a bleak dénouement.

The always epic "Abel," "Mr. November," and "Terrible Love" may have sparked the most impassioned sing-along sessions, but "Pink Rabbits" and "About Today" — the former awash in resigned horns, the latter a devastating slow-burner — best showed off the band's depth, confidence, and excellence of execution. The best Yonge and Dundas acts approach what could be a throwaway show as if it were a tickets-and-gate-receipts gig. The National went further, turning their NXNE slot into a special event and they did it without pomp or pandering.