By Hollister Dixon
The National are a band that I’m never going to stop loving. The prevailing ethos of a great many rock bands is to simply try to stay young, but for the bulk of their career, The National have tried their hardest to, simply put, make the process of getting older more tolerable. Frontman/songwriter Matt Berninger is one of the greatest modern songwriters, and for four albums in a row now, he’s found solace in the highs and lows of not only becoming a fully-fledged adult, but also of being a bit lonely sometimes. This is a band that gets a bad rep for being depressing, but to write the band off on such shallow grounds is to do a tremendous disservice to a band that spins tales of adulthood, but does it in a way that makes it look outrageously easy.
The day of the band’s Edgefield Amphitheater performance was rain-soaked and cold. I’ve been coming out to Edgefield for four years now, and each and every visit is in weather that could be described as “punishingly hot.” As such, coming out and discovering exactly why the tickets say “RAIN OR SHINE” is a strange experience, but it doesn’t dampen a single spirit in the crowd. When I arrive at the venue, I hear an incredibly over-the-top rendition of “Boys Don’t Cry” being performed, and before I can wonder which stage-hand might be doing it, I’m treated to an sloppy but nevertheless beautiful runthrough of “Don’t Swallow The Cap”, from the band’s new album Trouble Will Find Me. Matt Berninger has always had a sense of humor, but it’s always nice to see him work with it.
The band currently touring with The National are the Scottish troupe Frightened Rabbit. I’ve admired the band since their fantastic sophomore album The Midnight Organ Fight, but for whatever reason never managed to catch. “The weather has become decidedly Scottish today,” frontman Scott Hutchinson tells the drenched crowd as he picks up his guitar. The crowd laughs, because what else is there to do in weather like this? And for their dedication, they’re treated to a ten-song mix of the band’s last three albums, including “My Backwards Walk”, a Midnight Organ Fight track that was written as a companion to The National’s own “Fake Empire” (the band regularly covers the song before playing their own song live), and “The Modern Leper” (which brought about my first tears-in-eyes moment of the night), as well as fantastic cuts from this year’s Pedestrian Verse. More than a few people made comparisons to U2, and as a fan of both bands, I can’t help but see the comparison as an immense compliment. For a band that makes incredibly personal songs, it’s amazing to see them perform them for a sold-out amphitheater and lot lose any of the emotional impact.
Comments about the rain abounded on the day, and none got a bigger cheer than the first by Matt Berninger as The National took the stage. “You’re all soaked! Why did you get here so early? We’re all warm and dry up here!” he said, taking his rightful spot, front and center, with a bottle of wine. The thing you don’t really realize about The National is that they are something of a hit factory. Looking back on the setlist for the evening, you’ll find obvious songs missing, and the songs they didn’t play would have made for a compelling set. They hit every single beat you’d hope they would, from “Fake Empire” to “Mr. November” to the impeccable High Violet closer “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, used here to close the show itself. I kept waiting for a song that felt disposable, but it never came, not even considering the fact that they only skipped three songs from their amazing-but-not-astounding new album Trouble Will Find Me. They even threw in a cover of Perfume Genius’ “Learning” for good measure during the encore. And what of the songs they didn’t play? Missing were songs like “Secret Meeting”, “Mistaken for Strangers”, and “Anyone’s Ghost”: songs that seem like no-brainers for a National set are dropped in favor of… well, other songs that are no-brainers for a National set. This is a band that has been riding a wave of goodwill for exactly four albums, and each and every album feels like a new treasure to hold onto, which bleeds over into the live experience.
It’s hard to really pin down exactly why The National works so well in a live setting. They are purveyors of semi-hazy confessional rock music, and yet each and every piece of the band adds something truly unique to the proceedings. During this tour, the band is toying around with using a screen behind them, alternating between nondescript visuals and band-cam footage of each of the members playing. Throughout most songs, the latter portion of the visuals would switch between members, but one stand-out use was the camera being trained on drummer Bryan Devendorf for almost all of “Squalor Victoria”, subtly revealing the fact that his rhythms take a song that is merely very good, and turns it into something extraordinary. Herein lies the true joy of seeing this band play: you get the chance to peel away – and, if you choose to, isolate – each layer in the band, an discover for yourself just how important they all are to the music.
There are a lot of things I could ramble on about when talking about this band playing live, but if I were to, this review would be three times as long as it already is. The National are a band that will never stop being known as a “grower”, and though this is rarely meant as an insult, it’s something that we should really stop saying about this band. The fact of the matter is, The National are a band that feel completely timeless, and each and every fan of modern music, if they’re still sleeping on this band, would do well to wake up and start paying attention to one of the greatest bands in America.