Everyone has “that one band.” That one band that first exposed you to what would become your taste in music (Modest Mouse for me). That one band that expanded your horizons as to what music could be (Radiohead, specifically the album Kid A for me too). Bands or artists that exposed you to various genres: metal, hip-hop, jazz, what have you. The National is that one band that I listened to every time when things just seemed to suck as a teenager. Of the top 25 most played songs in my iTunes library, 9 of them are by The National (including 2 of the top 3). I have a deep and abiding love for Matt Berninger’s velvety dark-chocolate baritone, Bryan Devendorf’s jittery, spastic drumming, and the Dessners’ genius arrangements. But despite this, I’d never had a chance to see this juggernaut of my teenage life in concert (hence why I woke up early for the pre-sale and refreshed the Ticketmaster page until it actually went live). Thus, this review may be a little skewed. Even on the off chance that the live show didn’t quite match the power of their records, I would be head over heels for that Sunday night. However, I’m happy to report that this (like my experiences with Death Grips, The Mountain Goats, The Hold Steady, My Morning Jacket, Radiohead, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor) was not just a great show, but a defining moment of my year.
For my first National experience, the venue could not have been more perfect. If you haven’t been to a show at the Ryman yet, you’re missing not only a Nashville landmark but one of the great American venues. It’s literally a church. You sit in pews. Hank Williams played there. Johnny Cash played there. From the immaculate acoustics to the general beauty of the room, you really feel the history and gravitas of this one of a kind venue. And lucky me, I got seats on the floor about 50 feet from the stage (hitting refresh over and over again paid off well). But even the back row of the balcony is a pretty good, and surprisingly close, view. And did I mention the acoustics? Basically, there’s no better venue in Nashville for The National to play their especially epic brand of indie-rock.
This was the first show of a tour with Scottish indie-folk-rock band Frightened Rabbit (another one of those high school angsty bands for me). I had seen Frightened Rabbit on a solo tour when they came through this spring and found them to be a very solid, personable, entertaining live band. But I was not prepared for how they sounded in this space. The merch line kept me from hearing their first song (“Living In Color”), but I came just in time to catch the back half of “The Modern Leper,” the opener of that top-shelf breakup album The Midnight Organ Fight. This seemed like a different band than the one that played at 3rd & Lindsley. I don’t know if it was better equipment or just a better venue, but their sound was unbelievably massive. Midnight cut “My Backwards Walk” especially benefited from this newfound scale, with Scott Hutchison’s voice (as well as harmonies from drummer Grant Hutchison and multi-instrumentalists Gordon Skene & Andy Monaghan) in top form. Material from their newest album was also boosted by the venue, with the big guitar and keyboard parts truly resonating throughout the theater. Even as a fan who had seen them before, I was absolutely shocked. They blew the damn doors off, and next time they come through Nashville, they should find a home at the Ryman.
Even just the opener provided a good show, but once The National went on stage, you could feel the room just change. They opened with the first track on their new album Trouble Will Find Me (a fine album that I like a little more each time I hear it), but the visual component really stuck out. There were several cameras around the stage that framed the individual band members, and that footage would be superimposed over more abstract imagery. It was a great installation behind some incredible songs, and the grandiose aspect of their sound was not lost in their live performance.
The band was also surprisingly personable (not really expected from such a buttoned-down indie rock band). Frontman Matt Berninger’s banter displayed the dry sense of humor found in his lyrics, and his smooth voice made everything charming. About 5 songs in, Matt invited people sitting in pews on the floor to come up because there was “plenty of space” in front of the stage. So I spent the rest of the show about 7 feet from the most comfortable voice in indie-rock. It was beyond words.
That gave me an incredible view of Berninger’s theatrics. For all my description of The National as “buttoned-down” and such, it’s easy to forget that they have some straight up rockers in their catalog. The tribal stomp and bass groove of “Squalor Victoria” is stretched out live with a badass drum intro and with a new ending where Matt screams his head off and runs around the stage (breaking a mic stand in the process). Alligator cut “Abel” also tested Matt’s voice with screams of “my mind’s not right.” “Mr. November” also found Berninger going all the way to the back of the venue singing “I won’t f*** us over, I’m Mr. November” while stretching the longest microphone cord I’ve ever seen. The Dessners also showboated a bit as well, really accentuating the particularly awesome guitar moments.
Other highlights came from songs I did not expect to hear live (old cut “Lucky You” and my beloved “All The Wine”), High Violet tension-filled cuts “Afraid of Everyone” and “Terrible Love,” and the unstoppable trio of “England,” “About Today,” and “Fake Empire” that ended the main set. “About Today” in particular is a completely different beast live, with a lot more guitar texture and a noisy outro that embodies the best catharsis The National’s music provides (and had me in tears).
The band ended their show with an all acoustic version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” The Dessners played acoustic guitars, Bryan Devendorf played a tambourine, and the horns players came up to the front of the stage. In that moment of singing along with the whole auditorium, I felt a connection with this band and this crowd unlike any other show I’ve been to. I realized that my relationship with The National was not unique: everyone in the audience had that lovely relationship with the band. And throughout the show but especially in this one song, we were united, singing “Vanderlyle cry baby, cry.” That communal experience and my own personal relationship to the band made this one of those perfect concerts – one I’ll be telling stories about for years. This first National experience was just about everything I could’ve hoped for while listening to those wonderfully moody albums, even if they didn’t play “Apartment Story” (my favorite National song). Everything else was perfect, and I can’t wait for my next experience with this wonderful band.