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Live Review: The National @ Riverstage 12.2.14

On my way to see The National at Riverstage last night I mentally reflected on their long catalogue of music and tried to come to a steady conclusion on what kind of band The National were – what kind of band they had become after a good couple of decades in the music business.

It immediately became apparent to me just how far The National had come. They were a completely different band on classic early tracks like ‘Beautiful Head’ and ‘American Mary’ – alt-country as opposed to…well, whatever it is that they are now.  If I had to slap a label on a band like The National I wouldn’t denote their music to merely being ‘indie’ or hipster’, as it is often called now. Although they have changed and grown since the vulnerable rawness of ‘The National’ in 2001, the roots of their music remain deeply embedded in an Americana ethos and aesthetic, with their early songs recalling images of heartache in the sprawling Americana cross-country. Whilst their more recent tunes have matured into a darker and edgier vision, this is a perspective that correlates to a darker Americana. 

The National may have lost some of the natural rawness of their early tunes, but that sense of vulnerability that makes them relatable is still there. The bittersweet mood their songs evoke brings Riverstage to life, even though it’s a Tuesday night and their tunes are not the most cheerful. The National are as vibrant as ever. Every time I see a major international band play a gig on a crappy day in little Brisbane town I am super pleased if they put in a lot of effort to make it a good show, which they probably should be doing considering it’s their job. But a lot of bands do not, which is understandable when you take into account the two-three hour time-frame on stage, the monotony of performing the same show ten times in ten day, the jet lag and the busy tour schedules.

So when a band is phenomenal on stage despite all these mitigating factors, I earn a lot of respect for them not as just as musicians, but as professional musicians.  Especially when I think of a lot of smaller local bands who might play a show every couple of months down the road from where they live and yet robotically perform their back catalogue with cooler than thou expressions of boredom. Yes, it sucks being a small band, not making any money, lugging heavy equipment around Brisbane, and then not even having much of an audience at a gig, but for those handful of people who made the effort to come to your gig, show them why more people should be with them.

But getting back to The National. What really makes their live shows special and their live performance touching as opposed to contrived, is the right balance between optimistic energy and intensity that characterises most of their songs. And hey, some pretty crazy strobe lights attacking audience members at the most poignant parts of their songs helps too. The National are at their best with songs like ‘Terrible Love’, ‘Sorrow’ and ‘England’, all songs that find this delicate balance, whilst some of their less emotive and interesting songs fall flat in the shadow of better songs with stronger arcs.

The band uses a similar formula for most of their songs, which is essentially structuring their tracks in a rising arc that reaches a climax and then gradually plateaus (think ‘Afraid of Everyone’). This is a structure that inevitably captures the listener’s attention with pacing that slowly builds intensity. It’s a clever technique that seduces you like a good novel with rising action, climax and denouement.  After about halfway through the set the formula feels a bit stale, but short and sweet outliers like ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ and ‘Squalor Victoria’, with its kick-ass drumbeat, keep things interesting. What albums like ‘High Violet’ and ‘Boxer’ prove both in their recorded version, but even more so in the band’s live shows, is that The National are really at their best when they don’t play it safe, but unfortunately, they tend to play it safe a bit too often, relying on a formulaic sudden increase in energy to elevate a mediocre song.

One of the highlights of the night proves to be the inevitable encore. Once the crowd is at the point of frenzied begging for the band to return The National come back stage, showered by a spider-webb of flashing white lights as they begin ‘Humiliation’, a great track that really uses that ‘motoring’ pace I was talking about before to build momentum. I am not a fan of bloated of encores or really, encores at all, but ‘Humiliation’ was an explosive finale, ending with a complete blackout once the final chords are played. And that’s when the show should have ended, with the audience craving more. Instead, however, the band stays on stage and plays crowd pleasers ‘Mr November’, ‘Terrible Love’ and ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Creeks’. Things get pretty rock n roll with Matt Berninger jumping into the audience and attempting crowd surfing that turns out more like crowd climbing. I am impressed by Matt Berninger’s persistence at attempting to continue the song, despite being groped by eager fans who try to ‘help’ him out with the song when Berninger is at his most vulnerable. Of course the song is fan favourite ‘Terrible Love’, a predictable, but effective encore. In its shadow, ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Creeks’ leaves a little to be desired.

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