We’re only a few bars into The National’s opener ‘You Had Your Soul With You’ at Mad Cool 2019 as frontman Matt Berninger’s voice shudders to a close and he appears to be choking. “Sorry,” he tells the crowd, “I swallowed a fly”. As they roll into a heavenly rendition of second song ‘Quiet Light’, he seems to be fighting back. “I got most of the insects out of my throat, so we should be good”.
Fortunately for Berninger, he’s assisted on vocals this evening by former David Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, as well as French folk/new wave singer Mina Tindle and and Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan – three of the guests who lend themselves to the choir of female voices on the band’s acclaimed 2019 album and movie, ‘I Am Easy To Find’.
Don’t for a moment though imagine that they’re ‘hired hands’. On the record, they work on the album’s themes to reflect the stages and perspectives of a woman coming of age and moving through life. On stage tonight, they not only add a depth and scale to the band’s sound, but that combined with their presence makes The National feel more like an open and growing community.
It’s growing literally by moment, as Berninger recruits more members when he seems to spend more time among the audience than he does on stage at times – allowing his fanatics to holler into the mic and become part of the party. “Dude, those are the wrong lyrics!” he jokingly scolds one fan, before being swallowed up by his cult hoping for a hug or a selfie.
The heartfelt moments from ‘I Am Easy To Find’ allow the set to breathe with a little meditation, especially the tender and cinematic ‘Oblivions’ and utterly breathtaking album highlight ‘Where Is Her Head’. This writer also has no shame in admitting to welling up a little during ‘Rylan’). Then the grunge-tinged alt-rock bangers ‘Day I Die’, ‘Graceless’ and the knock-out one-two punch closer of ‘Mr November’ into ‘Terrible Love’ provide a feral release. As the night sky darkens over The National’s set, people around me weep, make out, scream and start circle pits. A full journey of emotions was travelled, and every man, woman, child and even the insects felt part of it.
The National’s setlist was:
You Had Your Soul With You
Don’t Swallow the Cap
Where Is Her Head
So Far, So Fast
Day I Die
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
I Am Easy to Find