ACL 2013 Review: The National

The National at ACL reveals how a moody indie standout became one of rock's finest acts

The National backs up its rep at Stubb's and Zilker shows

ACL Festival 2013 Day 3 The National 8883
The National at ACL Fest, Weekend One Photo by Jon Shapley

Some bands attract fans of all stripes, while others seem to have a certain demographic. If one guessed that the average fan at The National's Stubb's gig was a sensibly dressed, 37-year-old NPR fan wearing glasses and sipping a whiskey, they wouldn't be wrong.

That doesn't mean those fans don't have excellent taste: the band has slowly grown from a moody indie standout to one of rock music's finest acts. The rare chance to catch them in a fairly small room had the theater at capacity long before the surprisingly late start time, which nobody seemed to mind thanks to the surprisingly cool weather.

The National, like fellow festival act Wilco, is a rare thing: a group equally appropriate to intimate or epic backdrops.  

The group kicked off both its Saturday and Sunday shows with a pair of new songs from 2013's excellent Trouble Will Find Me. Opener "I Should Live in Salt" offered an in-person delivery of one of the best first lines in recent memory: "Don't make me read your mind; you should know me better than that." At the Zilker show, the group employed an enormous video monitor for subtle visual effects, from black-and-white backstage footage to paint splatters and raindrops.

Their ACL Fest gig was essentially a truncated version of the one from the night before — only one song was played at Zilker that wasn't in Saturday night's set. While Stubb's proved to be a better setting for the band's melancholy and brooding moments, one could convincingly argue that the ACL park setting brought out the anthemic nature of the same songs. The National, like fellow festival act Wilco, is a rare thing: a group equally appropriate to intimate or epic backdrops. 

Some of both set's surprises came in figuring out which of the newer songs became anthems when played live; for us, "Sea of Love" and "Graceless" best fit the bill. Frontman Matt Berninger trusts his audience to be patient and seems to favor a slow build in his energy and stage movement over the first half of the set. When he begins, you could mistake him for a college professor, with his beard and dark suit; by the set's close, his selective screaming, drops to the stage floor and leaps into the audience prove otherwise — Berninger's is onstage charisma is simply beguiling. While Saturday night's set felt a bit more brooding and intense in the darkness, it wasn't without levity — Berninger and bandmates Bryce and Aaron Dessner debated whether they'd ever played Stubb's before: "We've seen several good bands here. I don't think we've ever seen us here, though." The band let the audience lighten the mood for Sunday's gig — beach balls flew around the field during "Bloodbuzz Ohio," creating an odd juxtaposition.

Audiences seem to respond best during the bits where The National and Mr. Berninger go unhinged. 

While The National favors quiet intensity, its audiences seemed to respond best during the bits where the band and Mr. Berninger go unhinged: the screams and howls of "Abel" and "Squalor Victoria" brought  reaction to peak intensity. Veterans of previous National shows know what to expect,  but it's still an exciting spectacle to take in. Toward the end of Saturday's set, the band brought on Bon Iver's Justin Vernon for a guest spot, making many a quiet indie rock fan's dream come true. There were no such surprises on Sunday, though Berninger's government shutdown quip before "Fake Empire" that "This song has never been more appropriate than right now!" was a humorous consolation prize. The theme of frustration continued as The National blasted to the finish with their classic "Mr. November." The's song "I'm the new blue-blood, I won't fuck us over" singalong highlighted the idea that while The National might now be critically and commercially successful, they'll never lack for subject matter to brood over in this day and age.