When many saw that The National had topped the bill of this year’s FPSF, there were cries lamenting that another boring, stuffy indie-rock band was headlining the festival yet again. While the lineup could certainly use some diversity, The National often gets a bad reputation as another unexciting indie band. The thing is, unlike contemporaries such as Bon Iver or Fleet Foxes, The National have a tremendous live presence, elevating their recorded material into monsters onstage. The twin guitars of the Dessner brothers, who studied music at Yale and Columbia, serve as the backbone for intricate arrangements. The percussion of the Devendorf brothers drives the songs; drummer Bryan is one of the most complex and underrated drummers in rock today. The superb instrumentation is all brought together by singer Matt Berninger, whose dusky baritone evolves into a frenzied howl as he saunters around the stage, at times in a drunken swagger.
One of the finest indie-rock bands of the past 15 years, The National have built up an impressive discography that is only heightened when brought to the stage. They are stalwarts when it comes to festival sets, typically stealing the show at whatever festival they are booked for. Whereas some of the recorded material is known for being slow and brooding, they frequently turn those same songs into thunderous moments. The piano-driven “Fake Empire” may be their most famous song, but it’s not necessarily indicative of the peaks of their concerts. They may not be as popular as Vampire Weekend or Weezer, but they can hold their own with any of the other bands who have played FPSF in years past. Adding to that, it's the band's first time in Houston since 2010, and their fan base has grown considerably since then.
To get ready for next weekend’s closing set, we’ve prepared a guide to their live show with six performance videos that showcase how much of a powerhouse The National are, especially at festivals. It's a special time to catch them as well, since this marks the first U.S. show the band will play in 2016 as they are preparing their next album. Take a look through in anticipation of next Sunday.
5. "Squalor Victoria" (Live at Glastonbury, 2010)
“Squalor Victoria” is a great example of the transformative nature of The National’s live show. Released on 2007’s Boxer, the album version was a highlight, but far from the most electrifying moment. When it's played live, though, the band turn it into a raging track, building up to Berninger screaming out the last chorus, making it a staple in their setlist. This Glastonbury performance from 2010 features said screaming, highly varied from its studio version.
4. "About Today" (Live in Germany, 2008)
Alligator (2005) was The National’s first true breakout record, but there’s still one song from their early days that has become a part of their permanent rotation. “About Today” is the band’s most pained song, a meditation on a dying relationship that shows how expertly The National build on feelings of dread. The band’s penchant for extending the outro into a four-minute moving jam makes for one of its greatest live moments, and a fan favorite. This older video of them playing Germany in 2008 is one of their most drawing performances.
3. "Sea of Love" (Live in Sydney, 2014)
One of the more intense singles from their latest album, 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, “Sea of Love” shows that even as they grow and settle into maturity, the band hasn’t lost their step, still churning out some of the best songs of their career. The National are the kind of band whose songs from more recent albums are often as anticipated as their earlier ones. This performance from Sydney proves that they sound just as sharp now as they did years ago.
2. "Terrible Love" (Live at Reading, 2011)
High Violet (2010) was known as the record that elevated The National to the level of festival headliners, and its opening track’s live reputation is an example why. “Terrible Love” is a masterclass in building dread and anxiety, serving as one of the band’s biggest anthems. The album version is a bit muddled, but it really opens up in a live setting. It’s a great singalong that doesn’t have the angst or screaming that some of the group's other hits have. This video of them playing Reading in 2011 captures them at the height of their prowess, with Berninger running into the crowd and towering over the podium.
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1. "Mr. November" (Live in Eindhoven, 2011)
Sometimes you have to go with the classic. The closing track of 2005’s Alligator, featured prominently in Obama’s 2008 campaign, may be the most recognized song of their live performances. Usually coming toward the end of the set, this one always finds Berninger, winding his way through the crowd, shouting the chorus as everyone closes in around him. In this video from Eindhoven in 2011, he runs to the top of the balcony in the theater. Berninger pours his whole self into each set, and it always shows when the band gets to this song.
BONUS: "Start a War" (La Blogothèque, 2007)
While they probably won’t play this one in 2016, this is a special video as part of a French series where artists play songs in unconventional locations. This performance of the ballad from Boxer finds the band — huddled around a dinner table on a patio — at their most magnetic and spellbinding.