Three songs into the set, guitarist Bryce Dessner announced to the crowd that they were “warming up now” and he didn’t mean it in a musical sense. It was a bitterly cold night in Madrid and the Palacio Vistalegre, an old bullfighting plaza, which, although roofed, is essentially open to the elements, was as inhospitable as the freezing warren of streets around it. That the National made the crowd forget all about the icicles dripping from their noses and their frostbitten feet is a testament to the raw power of this veteran band. It was appropriate that The National played in such a taurine setting; there is something of the bull’s elemental energy about front man, Matt Berninger. He prowls the stage like a corralled toro bravo, raging and flailing, his strong baritone ringing out at times like the bellow of a wounded beast. The rest of the band are no slouches either. What surprised me most about seeing The National live was how unrestrained they are. They can be as heavy as anyone when they want to (something that doesn’t come across on their records), building songs into wailing and crashing crescendos. Aaron Dessner‘s lead guitar is much more prominent live than on disk and it turns out the guy’s a virtuoso. His adornments and occasional wall-of-sound solos give the songs a very different feeling live. He’s my new guitar hero!
I went to the concert wanting to hear “Fake Empire”, “Mistaken for Strangers”, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, and, with a bit of luck, “Conversation 16”. These are songs that have gotten under my skin over the last few years, songs that mean so much to me by now they are almost part of who I am – and indeed part of what we are as a family, with my little girls knowing the words of “Bloodbuzz”. I wasn’t disappointed. But it wont just be memories of strident and passionate renditions of these that I’ll be taking away with me. Songs from the new album, “Trouble Will Find Me”, such as “Demons”, “I Need My Girl” and “I Should Live in Salt” shone brightly in the Palacio Vistalegre and have me putting on the album time after time to be blown away once more by these gems. As a sign of how solid The National’s back catalog is, on top of the aforementioned stand-out moments, the band pulled more than a handful of oldies out of their hat (songs from “Alligator” and “Cherry Tree”) and it was probably “Sorrow” and “Afraid of Everyone” that were my favourite moments from the concert.
The band did the slower and quieter songs like “I Need My Girl” with a sensitivity and subtlety that contrasted brilliantly with the raucous raging of their angrier numbers. Sometimes they achieved both effects in the same song – “Afraid of Everyone” built beautifully into a distorted howl. The pair of trombonists they had with them lent a richness and texture to many songs, notably “Squalor Victoria”. The trombonists also seemed to be a focus for Matt’s between-vocal exhortations and comments, with the tall, bearded singer frequently leaving centre stage to check in with them. Towards the end, we were treated to Matt’s usual sally into the crowd. There was no harm done, although he did pinch someone’s beer!
The concert finished with a heartfelt “Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks”, and saw the band coming forward to the edge of the stage and singing with us in a way that reminded me of a sing-song at an Irish wake. It seemed for the duration of this serenade that the National and the crowd were one, that the band were making a statement about the nature of the so-called divide between artist and audience (something, I think, Matt’s forays into the crowd are meant to show). The National left us sated – and wanting for more. It was a great, great concert. They have the tunes, the lyrics (“You wouldn’t want an angel watching over you/surprise, surprise she wouldn’t want to watch”), the sound, the musicianship and a great attitude. There was no question of them going through the motions or fulfilling a contract with slick professionalism. They were putting everything on the line in the Palacio Vistalegre, just like the bullfighter stepping into the ring and Matt and the boys were on a serious bloodbuzz.