By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Jul 01, 2019 at 2:45 AM Photography: Dan Garcia

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Despite a day of on and off rainstorms, the clouds held off for the last night of the U.S. leg of The National’s "I Am Easy To Find" tour.

In fact, the band played a passionate 90-minute set at the Miller Lite Oasis that invoked a gamut of emotions with new tracks like "You Had Your Soul With You," the tongue-in-cheek "The Pull of You" and the moving "Light Years," in which frontman Matt Berninger croons, "Everyone was lighting up in the shadows alone/You could've been right there next to me, and I'd have never known.

Those were juxtaposed with fan favorites like "Fake Empire," an anthem that’s grown to be synonymous with The National's political activism, and "Blood Buzz," which tackles the mixed emotions tied up in returning home again after a hiatus of growth and change.

An album inspired by film

Despite having one of the strongest catalogues in indie-rock, the brilliance of The National lies at least partially in their ability to achieve a basic level of mainstream success without compromising their artistic interests. It’s an accomplishment that rings particularly clear when you consider the origins of "I Am Easy To Find," a sprawling album that was largely inspired by an impromptu collaborative film created by indie film director Mike Mills.

The film itself became the catalyst for the new album, which – for the first time – repositions Berninger not at the forefront but at the sidelines, accompanied by a rotation of female vocalists including Lisa Hannigan, Mina Tindle, Kate Stables, Sharon Van Etten, and longtime David Bowie bassist and backing singer Gail Ann Dorsey.

The beauty of the project is that it takes Berninger’s usual monologues and transforms them into conversations filled with thought-provoking commentary.

"What’s more political than trying to understand someone who’s not like you? Whether it’s a woman or someone from another culture, you’re just trying to empathize and understand each other better. Love songs are more political than anything else," noted Berninger in a recent interview with Independent UK.

And that’s precisely what "I Am Easy To Find" does.

As for the Summerfest show, it was a telling mix of past hits and new tracks from the band's thought-provoking 2019 album.

Seeking connection

On the one hand, there were emotionally raw ballads like "Pink Rabbits" in which Berninger laments, "You didn't see me I was falling apart. I was a television version of person with a broken heart."

Those songs were juxtaposed against tracks like "I Am Easy To Find" and "Light Years," both of which position the desire and power of connection against the illusion that achieving it is easy, or even possible.

The angst is further borne out in songs like "Graceless," a ballad which gleans power from its emotional universality as well as the Dessner brothers’ fastidious arrangements. The song powerful because, as sad as it might be, it reminds us that we’re not alone. In that moment, we’re reaching back into our souls for those painful moments and we’re connecting as emotional human beings.

And despite expressing a bit of weariness ("This is the last show in a long tour"), Berninger was in the moment, regularly meandering out to the edge of the stage, waving, blowing kisses and at one point even tossing his (not so empty) red Solo cup into the crowd.

There were also classic Berninger theatrics. Take for instance the moment he crumpled to his knees in front of guitarist Aaron Dressner in mock anguish during the nakedly riffy "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness."

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The System Only Dreams In Darkness.

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Berninger also brought his usual slapstick humor to the fore.

"Are you guys seeing all these flying Miller Lite signs now?" he exclaimed. "What the f*ck?! ... F*ck the flying benches ... " he said, pointing to the Skyglider. It was a gesture that prompted a series of comments about Miller Lite.

And he gave the crowd exactly what it had been looking for when he ambled out into the crowd during the band’s penultimate number "Mr. November."

It was the pinnacle of a show that ended with the popular-yet-cryptic "Terrible Love," a song which sets up the dichotomy between the horror of "walking with spiders" and the enjoyment of their "quiet company." It was a fitting end note for a band which leaves the crowd with no answers, no profound moral truths – just the remnants of a dark, profound beauty.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.