This review is going to be mainly about Matt Berninger. It’s unavoidable. Wye Oak’s Andy Stack (drums) and Lost Lander’s Matt Sheehy (bass) faithfully reproduced the sharp percussive beats and elastic bass sounds on EL VY’s Return To The Moon but as is the case for most touring musicians, they stayed away from the limelight. Brett Knopt, one half of the actual band, struck a cool demeanor, alternating between guitar and keys. On the former, he provided everything from lilting acoustic fingerpicking to cantankerous and clanking rhythms. Make no mistake, there is an EL VY sound, very distinct from The National, and Knopf is the man behind it.
However, there is no EL VY without Berninger. In music, everything is supposed to be, if not an act, then a second personality, summoned only when sucked out by fans, lights, and a smoke machine. For most, this act is a full-time job on stage; once you enter that zone you don’t come out of it until you’re backstage. Berninger’s slightly different, but this slight difference draws concert goers into a frenzy. While singing, he’s hunched all over the microphone, hanging onto it for dear life the way you’d hang on to a psychologist if you had inner demons too. On slow burners like ‘Sad Case’ and ‘No Time To Crank The Sun’, he and the band are in classic crooner mood. Hung heads, dim lights, a voice that borders mumbling. Between the verses, or when Knopf gets into his chops, he’s lost. Since he never plays any instruments, he wanders around the stage, lost, unsure of where to put his hands.
Sometimes though, all the aimless traipsing on stage turn are actually buildups to full-blown releases of pent up anger that comes from, well, somewhere. Watching (and hearing) Berninger scream on chunkier songs like ‘Happiness, Missouri) is dare I say it, cathartic. Like watching a car crash in slow motion, you lean away just a little bit when you see him expand his lungs for a yell or when he’s spitting every word to ‘I’m The Man To Be’. The closing songs included a cover of Fine Young Cannibals’ ‘She Drives Me Crazy’ and ‘Need A Friend’, both high-octane, whites-of-eyes affairs. Berninger crept up right to the drums and planted his head near the drums as Stack lashed against them. It’s apparent that Berninger reaches another place that no other band member gets to, even if he’s only drinking coffee.
Then in between songs, there’s a smile on Berninger’s face. One you’d get from the friendliest neighbour or granddad at Thanksgiving. He cracks a joke. He thanks you for coming. He introduces his mates. In those moments, he’s “normal” again. On ‘I’m The Man To Be’ the projectors flooded Berninger in green as he sang “I’ll be the one in the lobby in the green collared Fuck Me shirt”, further cementing his status as a quasi-ironic lyricist, both self-aggrandizing rock star and definitely not. That’s why he’s so compelling: you don’t know what he is.
EL VY played at the Fairmount on November 16.