There is no band that’s taken for granted like The National. You can focus on their consistency and lose track of how the five-piece have grown and evolved across the years. You can bemoan how their music has slowed in tempo while disregarding just how subtle and nuanced and precise it’s become. You can even call them boring while failing to acknowledge the clever and personal lyrics that gives their songs real emotional stakes. Every knock on the band is usually a shallow examination, where five dudes in their forties are seen at face value, willfully ignoring that they just happen to be one of the best American bands of the past 20 years.
Maybe you have to see them live. At the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday night, early in what is shaping up to be a long autumn of touring for the band, the group brought a nearly two-hour survey of their career to a sea of adoring fans. And fans at a National concert are a different breed. It’s not a celebration that causes them to stand from their seats and sing along, but a profound connection to frontman Matt Berninger’s earnest baritone delivery of lyrics that cut to the bone. Berninger’s words often feel like they are speaking for his fans, and ask any of them which is a favorite, and you’ll get a different answer from each.
For a set that focused sharply on their latest record, Sleep Well Beast, the night spoke to the strength of the new material in that it didn’t feel like a slog to hear the majority of it. Of course, with a catalog as deep and strong as The National’s, providing a set that pleases everyone is a challenge. The band opted for a selection of their most romantic tunes (“I Need My Girl”, “Slow Show”), their anthems (“Don’t Swallow the Cap”, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, “Fake Empire”), and songs that reference Los Angeles (“England”, “Conversation 16”), even finding time to throw in some deeper pulls like Alligator’s “Secret Meeting” and the Cherry Tree EP’s “About Today”. It was less a retrospective of where the band have been and more a snapshot of who the band are today, with even the oldest of the songs showing their DNA in the new material.
By the performance’s encore, Berninger’s voice struggled to yell its way through “Mr. November” and “Terrible Love”, but when surrounded by a band that blends soaring technical gifts with creative adventurousness, The National were able to carry the performance to its conclusion as a team. And maybe that’s where The National is at their best, in that when the five of them are in a room, the results are often magical. It’s what every band imagines themselves being, but few actually attain, where every member is vital and the others can pick one up when he falters. And that’s how their music makes you feel, like a net that can catch your fall, like a friend who’s been through it all before. If The National are shortchanged outside of their fanbase, quite the opposite is true inside their inner circle. At the Hollywood Bowl, they were a band that could do no wrong. They were the champions of feelings and the heroes of heartache. And most importantly, they were appreciated deeply.