The National (USA)

The National @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne, 9th February 2014)

The National @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne, 9th February 2014)

It was a case of ‘All Aboard’ for the good ship National as Matt Berninger led 10,000 fans through over 2 hours of perfection in the well chosen Myer Music Bowl

Part way through their 2 hour plus set at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, frontman of The National,  Matt Berninger announces that stand in bassist Logan Coale’s father had sailed to Australia from Portland, Oregon to watch his son play (Bassist Scott Devendorf, a new dad, is on paternity leave). Yep. He sailed. It made those of us in the crowd who had merely walked a little over a kilometre down St Kilda Road from Flinders Street feel that perhaps we hadn’t put in enough effort.

The National @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne, 9th February 2014)

The National @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne, 9th February 2014)

The National are a difficult act to explain to those unfamiliar. Rarely is their music immediately accessible, and without a little patience it would be easy for a virgin listener to cast them aside as too mellow – or at worst – boring. To do so though would be to miss out on one of the few bands that really challenge the listener, both musically and lyrically. With each listen, the impressive back catalogue the band possess only increases in its gravitas, revealing new sonic layers and offering new lyrical interpretations to the listener. It would seem that this isn’t lost on the band either – this is a 5 piece who last year played 2010’s Sorrow – a track from High Violetfor 6 hours straight. Of this event, guitarist Bryce Dessner would go on to explain “It was something special for us. There was a weird hypnotic resonance and spirituality to repeating the song over and over. At one point we started to reharmonise the chords but Matt (Berninger) was so tired that he didn’t notice”.

The National @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne, 9th February 2014)

The National @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne, 9th February 2014)

But that was then. This is now, and making a low key entrance to the stage, the Dessner twins Aaron and Bryce, drummer Bryan Devendorf and stand in bassist Coale take their place before Berninger arrives in his trademark 3 piece suit and, looking befuddled, launches into Don’t Swallow the Cap from last year’s Trouble Will Find Me. A set by The National is predictable in one sense – it will build and build to the point of insanity, though it’s always about the journey – no,  not a Masterchef style ‘journey’ here – rather than the destination. Early on we’re treated to 3 of the best – Boxer’s 2007 masterpiece Mistaken For Strangers, the aforementioned and understandably slick Sorrow and early highlight, Bloodbuzz Ohio. Those who had paid $140 for the better tickets could have related to Berninger’s famous “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe” line, but few would have regretted a touch of financial unpleasantness to be where they were under the roof at the Bowl.

The National @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne, 9th February 2014)

The National @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne, 9th February 2014)

Dedicating Demons to Logan Coale’s seafaring father, Berninger – who continually paces the stage like some cross between mad orchestra conductor, troubled science teacher and caged lion – gives us one of the great songs from Trouble Will Find Me, his deep, hypnotic baritone rumbling all the way to the back of the lawn which held the 10,000 strong crowd. The music and sound tonight are as crisp and as clear as one could ask, the Dessner brothers on guitar trade off irregular time signatures. 4/4 is out the window when it comes to the 7/8 of Demons, and Hard To Find, which follows shortly after, seems to be in something along the lines of 5/4. When you write tunes like that, you’re going to need a good drummer. Luckily, The National have Bryan Devendorf. With seemingly more hair than skin and dayglo pink cap he’s hard to miss, and it’s his rock solid but complex drumming that drives the band. The new songs are beautifully accentuated too by the brass pairing of Trumpet and Trombone,

The National @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne, 9th February 2014)

The National @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne, 9th February 2014)

As the set builds, Berninger becomes more animated, smashing a wine glass before the roof raising Squalor Victoria and alternating his stage position between right out front on a small platform and back hard up against the drum kit. He’s rarely in the conventional ‘front-and-centre’ rock frontman position, but, as they say, The National are not your conventional rock band. As Aaron Dessner gives us the chiming intro of the subtly beautiful I Need My Girl, there’s a hush throughout the crowd, with every pair of eyes and ears focussed on the lush sounds and slow moving visuals that complement each other perfectly.

The National @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne, 9th February 2014)

The National @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne, 9th February 2014)

Taking to the piano, it’s left to Aaron to give us the distinctive piano part of Pink Rabbits – it suffers slightly through some really heavy bottom end on the piano, but it’s still given the singalong treatment by the crowd. England leads into the spectacular Graceless, and it’s the job of  Boxer’s opening track Fake Empire to close out the main set. There’s smashed glass – from bottles and wine glasses – on the stage but there’s no anger from the culprit. Berninger simply immerses himself so deeply into his songs, and lyrically he’s on record as saying that he’ll have 4 or 5 takes personally on what his own lyrics are about. Whether one sees that as vague or simply open to interpretation is a choice, but it’s this depth that makes The National a band that you can’t help but keep listening too. It’s not dissimilar to watching the film Donnie Darko over and over and over again, in the vain hope that perhaps at some point you’ll realise what the hell it’s about.

The National @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne, 9th February 2014)

The National @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne, 9th February 2014)

Returning from a short break, it’s time to bring this ship home, which – as they tell us – can’t happen without drummer Devendorf. Resuming his seat at the kit, we’re given Humiliation, before Alligator’s epic Mr November sees Berninger venture all the way to the back of the seated crowd, screaming the lyrics and sharing sweat with the 2000 strong floor section. “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders” he sings, but it’s clear that it’s precisely what’s happening here and now. As he climbs over the heads and arms of those at the front, Terrible Love brings this set to an immeasurable climax, before a completely acoustic close of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks gets the full crowd treatment.

The National @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne, 9th February 2014)

The National @ Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Melbourne, 9th February 2014)

There’s tears, smiles, sweat and exhaustion, but on this journey, Berninger and the lads from The National haven’t even come close to hitting an iceberg. It’s a triumphant voyage of over 2 hours that would be near impossible to explain to those not present. That’s certainly not going to stop any here tonight from trying though.

-AB

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