Madison, Wisconsin, U.S.A. – The weariness of standing on concrete for hours suddenly disappears once you begin hearing the music you came for, not just with your ears, but as it seeps into your skin and echoes within your bones. This shift holds a magic that goes beyond a mere adrenaline rush. It is The National stepping onto the stage.
The Brooklyn-by-the-way-of-Cincinnati band, whose new album Laugh Track released on Monday, follows four other albums in the past decade. Their slow but steady rise, both commercially and critically, has transformed them from a modest indie act into leading performers of sold-out tours.
Following the April release of their ninth studio album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein, they are on tour to bring their latest music to audiences.
The venue buzzes with anticipation, not only for The National but also for the opening act. The Beths, an indie quartet from New Zealand perform as people continue to pack the space to capacity. The air becomes electric; excitement builds.
Glimpses of the backstage come alive through a live stream, blending visual elements seamlessly into the experience with Pomme’s “Je Sais pas danser” playing in the background.
There are no announcements in the walk-up. The National’s lineup has remained consistent with the same five members since 1999. Brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf form the rhythmic core with drums and bass, while twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner master guitars and piano. Matt Berninger stands at the forefront, lending his charismatic presence as the group’s main lyricist and frontman.
The setlist for the evening proves to be a treat, offering deep cuts and unveiling three live debuts, including one yet-to-be-released track. The concert begins with the haunting melancholy of “Once Upon A Poolside,” a piano ballad that sets the tone for the first few songs. It is followed by “Eucalyptus” and “Tropic Morning News,” and then “New Order T-Shirt.”
These intense and intimate songs may seem unconventional openers, but Berninger’s heartfelt, animated singing complements these newer songs in the best way. Trumpet and trombone by supporting artists Kyle Resnick and Benjamin Lanz add a rich layer to their live rendering.
As the concert goes on, the Dessner Brothers approach the edge of the stage during the outro of “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” Their interlocked guitar patterns and the dramatic raising of their guitars above their heads ignite cheers from the audience.
The Devendorfs, though often more felt and heard than seen, provide the steady rhythmic heartbeat of the performance. Berninger frequently ventures to the edge of the stage, sometimes separated by a barricade, sometimes by nothing at all. This laidback confidence in roaming the stage and interacting with the crowd is their norm now.
“Fireproof” and “Runaway” made their tour debut, last played live in 2014 and 2015, respectively. In between songs, the band engaged in friendly banter with the audience. A curious silence fell over the crowd as they introduced an unheard song, later confirmed to be “Smoke Detector.”
Sharp but wistful, the song seemed to go on forever, with the line, “You don’t know how much I love you, do you?” standing out. The National is a band known for road-testing unreleased material in such ways. “Smoke Detector’s” final form remains to be seen.
Throughout the set, the audience exists largely offline. Phones flickered in and out of view only briefly, capturing seconds of choruses before disappearing, a testament to the audience’s immersion in the moment.
Unlike many bands in the indie/alternative movement, The National does not rely on catchy, upbeat hooks to drive their music. What truly sets them apart is their ability to weave emotionally charged melodies together, both new and timeless.
In a world of conformity, The National remains a shining example of raw emotion in music.
Frida Zeinali is a Senior Correspondent with Youth Journalism International.