Welcome to our weekly feature Video Rewind. Every Friday, a CoS staffer shares a video clip dug up from the depths of the Internet. On Saturday, The National will make their Saturday Night Live debut. In anticipation, Ryan Bray examines the band’s uncanny ability to control any stage, be it a national festival or just your local convention center.
The best thing you can say about The National, even among all the great things that can be said about The National, is that they have this uncanny ability to turn every setting into the most intimate space on Earth. I’ve seen them play in front of thousands of people at Lollapalooza and in the warmer, tighter confines of a small theater, but the effect is the same. These guys write songs that land the hook right in your mouth and reel you in slowly.
Their performance at the Gibson Texas Showroom during last year’s Austin City Limits is a casual demonstration of The National’s true power. “I Need My Girl” is vintage National, complete with echoey guitars, sleek ambiance, and Matt Berninger’s low, soulful vocals. Watching it all come together in the moment, however, is completely new experience. It’s like watching a musical puzzle being put together before your eyes. Everything has its exact place and function, from the delicate guitar sounds that trickle with pastoral subtlety to the sparse but powerful drums and the moaning brass. From a cinematography standpoint, the black and white gives the performance an appropriate twinge of luster and romanticism. It’s equal parts beauty and bleakness, just like the band itself.
In lesser hands, a performance during a trade expo would have crumbled under the weight of comic self-seriousness. Somehow, though, The National make you a believer. Earnest, heart-on-sleeve rock songs are a dime a dozen, but it’s hard not to think that The National truly buy into what they’re selling. It’s not just in their music, but in their body language. Berninger’s thoughtful contemplation at the video’s start paints the picture of a guy who’s bracing himself to go all in for the next four minutes.
You can almost detect some sense of slight hesitation before he finally just dives head-first into the song. At the end, there’s but a smattering of generous applause, a far cry from the overstuffed venues and festivals the band’s grown accustom to in recent years. Still, as they do every night they take the stage, The National leave every last strain of white-hot emotion right there among the monitors and crumbled setlists.