The National’s headlining show at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Friday felt like the culmination of a 20-plus-year grassroots campaign of devotees growing the base one person at a time. After all, nothing about the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Ohio quintet is radio-friendly: Frontman Matt Berninger sings brooding tales about shattered relationships and the creep of death in a rich baritone, while brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner play knotty guitar lines over the thumping rhythm section of bassist Scott and drummer Bryan Devendorf, also brothers.
Over the course of nine albums, fans’ obsession has deepened, while the group has fun with its image as mopey rockers, even selling “Sad Dads” merch on tour. Yet the perception that they lead two-hour cry sessions belies fiery live shows, with setlists heavy on high-tempo singalongs and Berninger flinging himself into the crowd to scream lyrics in the pit. Despite the heightened venue, the band retained its punky ethos at the world’s most famous arena.
Starting the set with a quartet of tracks from the group’s newest album, the mannered “First Two Pages of Frankenstein,” the National bounced off of the crowd’s energy and added an healthy amount of piss and vinegar to recorded material that, compared to their best work, risks floating away in the background. The best of the bunch is the anthemic “Eucalyptus,” which begins as a checklist of who gets what in a dissolved relationship, Berninger’s voice increasingly cracking up and dissolving into shouts as he contemplates a future alone, juxtaposed against a crescendo of roaring guitars and horns by the end. While the version on “Frankenstein” cleanly delineates the structure of the song, the live performance turns it into an all-timer.
Turning to their back catalogue, the National chose a setlist that kept MSG on their feet, a feat considering the band lacks traditional hits. Maybe it’s because every fan knows each word of the catalogue, but there was no end to rousing crowd participation, no matter how outrageously dour the subject matter. Don’t underestimate the power of thousands harmonizing to “Had my head in the oven so you’d know where I’ll be” or pumping fists to “The day I die where will we be?”
Yet some of the evening’s highlights came from the most obscure pulls. “Abel,” a deep cut from 2005’s “Alligator,” sprinted until ending with Berninger repeatedly howling “My mind’s not right,” seemingly mid-emotional exorcism; the title track from their 2004 EP “Cherry Tree” escalated into a flood of noise; and the brand new “Space Invaders” built to a dizzying conclusion, with the Dessners choking wild squeals from their instruments.
Flair aside, the National is, at its core, a group filled with wonderful songwriters. Although onstage banter touched on their unconventional time signatures, they know their hooks, and playing fast and loose live doesn’t distract from the indelible melodies in “I Need My Girl,” “Apartment Story,” “Graceless,” “Fake Empire” and others which encourage the faithful to share intimate music with their closest friends.
This community spirit felt strongest during the encore’s finale, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” where the band went acoustic and Berninger acted as ringleader, silently miming out the words so that the thousands of fans would carry the soaring vocals of the grown-up lullaby. In an arena filled with people whose discovery of the National was through hushed and intimate records, it was an opportunity to belt along and be heard.