The National began their set at the Orpheum with live footage of the indie rockers walking out from the backstage area. The grainy footage, paired with an orange filter, showed the band’s well-established personalities early on, with some members ignoring the camera while others waved.
Nonetheless, it felt familiar, and in that familiarity was something special.
Nearly two decades into their career, The National are about as solidified into the musical zeitgeist as any indie band can be. With multiple albums that could be considered classics, fans across multiple generations and plenty of anthems, The National has reimagined what indie rock means.
With their nearly two-hour long set, The National are still willing to push the boundaries while simultaneously doing what they’ve always done — create an emotionally chaotic rock performance.
It’s tough to write anything that hasn’t already been said about The National. That’s not to say that the group is unimaginative or bland, but rather a testament to their strong combined identity that stems from truly unique personalities.
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During their set, there were countless points where I asked myself if any member of this band could be replaced — only to answer “no” every time. Matt Berninger’s drunken poet rockstar persona that flirts with anxiety and recklessness is, of course, a staple. Who better to complement the reclusive nature of Bryce and Aaron Dessner or the methodical poise of Bryan Devendorf and the goofiness of Scott Devendorf? The odd combination of shyness with Berninger’s manic stage presence created wonderful moments throughout the set.
Few moments showed this quite like the band’s performance of “Day I Die.” During a solo, Berninger threw his red solo cup of wine, of which he had many of, into the air like a child throwing pop-ups to themselves in the backyard. As the plastic cup descended down, Berninger attempted to catch it with his back or neck. I’m not quite sure what his goal was — though as expected, he spilled all over himself and cut his mic out. He continued to perform the song, despite having nothing come out of his mic, while the rest of the band continued the performance with no qualms.
The set covered most anything a fan would want to hear — from “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” to “Fake Empire” and “Mr. November,” to new tracks. Of the new unreleased tracks, “Quiet Light” proved to be a highlight. The band premiered the track in Eau Claire and have made it a staple in their setlists since. The unreleased track features a strong piano performance, an interesting guitar accompaniment and a solid vocal performance from Matt Berlinger — so in other words, it has everything that makes for a good The National track.
It feels wrong to talk about The National’s performance without mentioning the quality of Lucy Dacus’s opening set. Dacus played a six-track supporting set mainly from her latest release Historian. “The Shell” and “Night Shift” showed the up-and-coming indie rocker can fill larger venues such as the Orpheum, while the album’s closer “Historians” showed that Dacus is not afraid to strip away her sound, even in a much less intimate venue. Dacus put on a wonderful performance and held her own while opening for one of indie rock’s best live bands.
The National closed their set with a four-track encore, beginning with a new track titled “Light Years” before playing some fan favorites. “Mr. November” made the audience shout along to the chorus while bouncing around. Yet, their closer of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” brought the crowd together for a singalong with the Dessner twins playing acoustic guitars and the rest of the band away from their instruments and microphones.
This closer showed how special The National are. Fans in the audience ranged from college-aged people to adults likely in their 50s and 60s. Everyone threw their voice in to make up something larger than themselves. Hearing people talk about The National shows the band’s ability to be more than just a band to fans. They bring people through difficult times, or, at the very least, allow them to make sense of tragedy.
Their show at the Orpheum revealed that The National possess something incredibly rare — the ability to create a sense of empathy across generational divides. It felt emotionally raw and warm to be on the floor singing along to The National with more than 1,000 strangers, and The National seemed to be basking in the moment still, even after 19 years together.