The National close out Bluesfest on the RBC Main Stage, July 17, 2022

July 19th, 2022 by  |  Published in Concerts

The National at Ottawa Bluesfest 2022 by Greg Kolz 1

The National. Photo credit: Greg Kolz

On a sweltering July night, I​ndie rock mainstays The National brought their own kind of heat to the Ottawa RBC Bluesfest main stage.

Simmering Emotion

“If you want to see me cry, play Let it Be or Nevermind” sang Matt Berninger on the show opener, “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” setting the stage for a band that doesn’t sound much like the Beatles or Nirvana, but whose sophisticated melodies certainly bring the melancholy alongside rocking riffs.

Though the band sounds polished on record, the live show brought an edgier, at times unhinged, and incredibly striking sound. This feel was best characterized by singer Matt Berninger’s stage presence. He spoke softly and rarely between songs but revealed an inner fury, clutching at head and chest to deliver poetic, personal lyrics with raw voice and tangible passion. Set highlight “Graceless” found Berninger touring the crowd, not for the first or last time, voice breaking as he nearly screamed out the chorus.

Not to be outdone, guitarist Bryce Dessner brought a relentless fury of distorted guitar, at one point picking up and waving a second guitar at angles to get just the right effect. The addition of horns for the live show, as well as an ominous distorted digital display with occasional slogans, helped set a tone for the sweet melodies belying undercurrents of simmering tension. Early in the set, The National took the crowd to the heights of this bittersweet appeal with a one-two punch; The desperate and furious ode to inarticulate feelings, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” was followed by the achingly beautiful, idiosyncratic love song, “I Need My Girl.”

The National at Ottawa Bluesfest 2022 by Greg Kolz 2

The National. Photo credit: Greg Kolz

Undeniable Appeal

These continual tensions and the relentless pace seem to define the band’s irresistible sound: tensions between love and anger, heavy riffs and gentle melodies, distorted guitar and upbeat horns, impassioned vocals and gentle harmonies. All this kept the entire set exciting, danceable, and cathartic; a fantastic way to end out the Bluesfest festival for it’s glorious post-Covid return.

Although I had friends turn me on to a variety of indie bands in the mid and late 2000s, The National had somehow escaped my radar; getting to see them live as 20-year veterans was a revelation, and I look forward to visiting their back catalogue.

C​heck out the complete setlist here.

-Aaron Kaiserman

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