It’s hardest to write about the things you love… the things that keep you buoyant when the waves are pullng you down. The music of The National is one of those things. Seeing the band play live is something I have been anticipating since I saw them light up The Zoo’s stage in early 2008. That night they felt like a band with a point to prove. There was a ferocity in their performance; Berninger lurching around the stage like a coiled spring, unleashing regular full-throated bursts of noise.
Since that time they have continued to move away from the more openly raucous moments of breakthrough album Alligator, choosing to push forward with the vulnerable grandeur started on album #4, Boxer. The spotlight on the band has has also brightened, with (album #5) High Violet making many critics 2010 album of the year lists, so I was interested to see how, or in fact if, their approach to the live arena had altered.
I want to say straight up, The Enmore was the perfect venue to enjoy the band. As the lights dimmed and the crowd hit fever pitch, the band took the stage, opening with one of High Violet’s quietest moments, Runaway. It was a masterful way of silencing the crowd and putting the music front and centre from the very beginning. Berninger’s lyric, ‘What makes you think I’m enjoying being led to the flood?’ takes on greater meaning tonight, with so much of our beautiful state under water and immediately they have me in that space of wonder, part of the moment rather than mere observer.
Not surprisingly, tonight’s setlist is made up primarily of songs from High Violet (in fact, Little Faith is the only song that is not played), with smatterings of Boxer and Alligator to flesh out the show. An early highlight for me is Squalor Victoria (from Boxer). It is immense; Bryan Devendorf’s drumming is urgent, distinctive as any guitar riff, paving the way for Berninger to give us that first glimpse of vocally letting go. And while I marvel throughout the night at (Bryan) Devendorf’s drumming, it is the other Devendorf, who for me, steals the show. His bass playing is so incredibly understated, but when the band soars, it is Scott’s bass that is the underlying force.
This was most apparent on what was one of the songs of the night (I just cannot settle on one…), Afraid of Everyone. This song took on a new life, crescendoing with the line ‘Yellow voices swallowing my soul’. Devendorf’s pulsing bass was thrilling as was the chainsaw buzz of the Dessner brothers guitars and Bryan’s lyrical drumming. The lighting was also a highlight here, strobing as the band peaked… for a moment, the whole venue seemed like it was about to split open.
This was not the only moment where things threatened to burst… set closer, Fake Empire captured the band’s dramatic intensity, their slightly menacing-late-night-mood. And as the Dessner twins stood side by side, guitars raised and chiming, I felt like I had been taken on a journey through a world of asymmetrical passageways… a journey that was yet to climax.
And climax it did, with the stunning encore of Mr November and Terrible Love. Like the room, Berninger had threatened to burst all night but on Mr November he let it all go and the crowd went with him… right until the final moment when the band lined the front of the stage, in pure acoustic mode, Berninger abandoning his microphone to deliver Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks. It was an uplifting end, the crowd singing along emphatically as Berninger leaned into every word and the band played with spare beauty.
Runaway had taken us away from the light and into the band’s world, a world of lost sharks, love and other complications, and Vanderlyle placed us back on our own personal shore, flooded with emotion. The National are among those rare bands with the ability to create worlds… I can’t wait to see where they take us next.