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Gig Review: The National @ The Palais, 9th January

One runs out of adjectives to describe Brooklyn’s The National after a while. Their music is simultaneously brooding, emotional, uplifting, dark, restrained, and electrifying. However the one word that sticks with me is ‘majestic’. And last night, The National put on a show at Melbourne’s Palais Theatre that was majestic in every possible sense of the word, and will go down as my favourite gig to date.

This was my first show at a seated venue, but luckily I had seats in the third front row, and I must say that it was nice for once to not worry about getting to a venue at doors and then surviving for hours in a very cramped space just to get a good position. I was slightly concerned that this might mean less people bothered rocking up for the opening act, the brilliant The Middle East, but thankfully by the time the guys from Townsville took to the stage the venue was quite full.

And The Middle East put on a show worthy of a support act of The National. They just have such a great feel to their music, with band members constantly swapping instruments and sharing lead vocals to stunning effect. New single Jesus Came To My Birthday Party was played early on in their set, and although it was enjoyable I maintain that it pales in comparison to their earlier music.

Speaking of which, Darkest Side was wonderful as always with four band members harmonising vocals to create a truly beautiful sound that reverberated around the theatre. The Spoken Word Song, as it has come to be known without an official name, was very interesting, and the way it built to a climax was memorable.

Blood was of course the highlight of their set however: it is an incredible song, and is absolutely captivating live. If I’m being critical, the band seemed slightly indifferent on stage, but ultimately this was yet another great performance from The Middle East which demonstrated perfectly just why they already have an international following, and why their upcoming album is so highly anticipated.

Opening for The National is no easy job, but The Middle East did it justice.

As The Middle East departed and the venue staff hastily set about preparing the stage for the arrival of The National, the few empty seats around the venue rapidly filled. The atmosphere of anticipation was palpable, and it was almost eerily quiet in the theatre as everyone eagerly awaited the arrival of one of the most critically acclaimed bands of recent times.

It was a bit past 9pm when the house lights finally went off and the stage was suddenly illuminated in a purple glow. Atmospheric backing music slowly built up over a couple of minutes, before, almost anticlimactically, five silhouettes walked onto the stage, and the music cut off.

The National had arrived, and the Palais erupted with cheering. With a casual smile frontman Matt Berninger greeted the crowd, and informed us that they had accidentally played the wrong introduction music. The band were immediately charming, and seemed very relaxed. They wasted no time in breaking into opener Runaway.

As one of the few songs that the crowd listened to while sitting down, it was pretty much perfect. It illustrates The National’s unparalleled ability to build tension in a song without a moment a relief. It is such an impossibly restrained song, as Matt’s baritone echoed throughout the venue with “Go ahead, go ahead throw your arms in the air tonight”, advice that the crowd would take to heart in due time.

And, just like that, the entire crowd was lulled into the spell of The National. It was a spell that wouldn’t be lifted for nearly two hours, as the band played a satisfactorily long setlist that drew from four out of five of their studio albums.

Mistaken For Strangers provided the first taste of ‘Boxer’, which is one of my favourite albums of all time. It was immediately obvious that the band have a live show that does justice to their recorded material, and then some. Matt’s vocals were simply commanding live, demanding the unabated attention of every single person in the crowd, while twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner shared the front of the stage to great effect. I found it amusing how they always came to the front of the stage together and constantly confused the crowd by swapping positions. Meanwhile Bryan and Scott Devendorf, as well as the two additional brass players, seemed content to remain in the background, but nevertheless significantly added to the presence of The National.

The natural chemistry between the band was exceptional.

Matt introduced Anyone’s Ghost as “The only song of ours that you can dance to,” which was a thinly veiled attempt to get the crowd standing up. Thankfully it worked, and so it was that from the third song the entire Stalls section of The Palais was standing. While I was definitely grateful of this when compared to remaining sitting, I am going to be that guy and say that the show would have been better at a standing venue. However this is a very minor complaint of what was an impeccable show.

Only The National would possibly think Anyone’s Ghost was a dancing song, but it didn’t matter to the thousands of people in the Stalls, who got moving slightly, and remained standing after the song’s conclusion. It served to increase the atmosphere even further, and I must say that The Palais made for a beautiful scene with The National doing their thing on the enormous stage and the entire crowd standing, all thoughts of seats completely forgotten.

Bloodbuzz Ohio was captivating, but for me personally it was immediately surpassed by the following song, Slow Show. It is one of the most painfully beautiful songs I have ever heard, and live it was truly something to witness. I think I actually spent the entire song with my jaw slightly open, so staggered I was at what I was witnessing. It was spellbinding. “You know I dreamed about you, for twenty-nine years before I saw you”.

Squalor Victoria kept the ‘Boxer’ hits coming, and was probably the song most changed between studio and live versions. It wasn’t anything drastic, just a lot of subtle things that made for a slightly more frantic and powerful live rendition. The band changed back to ‘High Violet’ mode with Afraid Of Everyone, which was hauntingly beautiful.

Matt is the best frontman I have ever seen. How he pulls off the combination of brooding, funny, charming, and emotional so perfectly I will never understand, but he was absolutely captivating. He got so into his music, screaming into the mic whenever the emotion of the song called for it, using the mic stand as a personal prop, and prowling around the front of the stage like a man possessed. Perhaps surprisingly, for a band that is always typecast as somewhat morose, the banter between band members was hilarious at times, playing off the fact that mainstream media sees their music as slightly depressing.

“This is a song about cannibalism. We don’t do that anymore.”

So it was that Matt introduced the brilliant Conversation 16, which was also hauntingly beautiful. Like I said, after a while you run out of adjectives. “Now we’ll leave the silver city, ’cause all the silver girls, everything means everything”. All The Wine and Abel were wonderful surprises, given that the band do not always play them live, and the latter in particular was great fun and got everyone dancing just that little bit, as Matt belted out the screaming chorus. The setlist had the makings of an absolute winner.

This was only further asserted with the Available/Cardinal Song double, two songs from ‘Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers’. Even though obviously not everyone in the venue was familiar with the tracks, those that were showed their appreciation with cheering at the start of either track. It’s great to see a band that don’t forget about their older songs despite finding more success with their newer material. The next song only continued to prove this point: Daughters Of The Soho Riots was sublime.

I’ll admit that Apartment Story took me a bit by surprise- I thought their were plenty of other ‘Boxer’ songs they would opt to play live instead of it, but I’m certainly not complaining. Sorrow was more predictable, and to the band’s credit they made a song with the lyrics “Sorrow found me when I was young, sorrow waited, sorrow won” sound beautiful rather than depressing.

But then The National played England, and suddenly nothing else mattered very much anymore. It was indescribably beautiful, utterly mesmerising, and so many other things. It was musical perfection, with Matt’s restrained vocals dominating The Palais Theatre and that driving drumbeat slowly building to a magnificent climax. “You must be somewhere in London. You must be loving your life in the rain”.

I never could have possibly imagined myself being brought to tears by a music concert, but The National proved otherwise.

And then it was time for one of my favourite songs, Fake Empire. I was actually slightly afraid that the band might not be able to capture its magic when playing live, but I was completely wrong. Somehow the live version was even better. That piano riff is simply timeless, and Matt’s vocals somehow reached even greater levels, as the entire venue just stood there and watched, mouths slightly agape. I cannot get over how good it was. “Turn the light out, say goodnight, no thinking for a little while. Let’s not try to figure out everything at once. It’s hard to keep track of you, falling through the sky”.

With the crowd still slightly shellshocked, but not so much that we were beyond screaming out our appreciation in the general direction of the stage, The National departed. It wasn’t exactly a mystery as to whether they would be coming back for an encore or not, but I still felt slightly disappointed that the gig was that much closer to being over.

Sure enough the five guys (plus the two constant trombone and trumpet players) soon reappeared on stage to deafening applause, as Matt took a bottle of wine from the stage and handed it to some idiots in the first row. The band must be used to the reception their music receives, but they still seemed very grateful for the overwhelming response from the Palais. They were just so likable.

By this point I had all but given up on my favourite track from ‘High Violet’ making an appearance, but the band began their encore by playing it: Lemonworld. It was once again simply captivating, as Matt’s ‘Da da da da’ chrous juxtaposed amazingly with his normally faultless enunciation. It was so wonderful to hear the song live.

Little did we know, things were just getting started. It was of course time for the one and only Mr. November. “I wish believe that I believed in fate, I wish I didn’t sleep so late. I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders”. It was electric, as all the tension that had been building up through some of The National’s more restrained songs was released in a cacophony of screaming “I’M MR. NOVEMBER, I WON’T FUCK US OVER”.

And then, all of a sudden and without warning, Matt was in the crowd. I had seen him do this at standing venues, but had no idea that he would even dream of doing it in a theatre. His chair climbing skills were very impressive, as he vaulted in between rows with ease, all the while not missing a beat, with his mic cord held up by random crowd members. He made his way deeper and deeper into the crowd, alternating walking in the aisle and jumping on seats. It created an even more amazing atmosphere, as the entire crowd focused their attention on the dark figure making his way deliberately among the venue. It created a real buzz as Mr. November came to its thrilling conclusion.

Somehow Matt managed to find his way back to the stage, and to be honest I was slightly disappointed that he hadn’t entered our section at the front of the crowd, even though I wasn’t about to let that get in the way of my enjoyment of the show. The cheering at the end of Mr. November was something to behold.

But The National were far from done, and broke into Terrible Love. It was another one of those indescribable songs; it was yet again a moment of magic. “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders. It’s quiet company. It’s quite a company”. The song must have gone for nearly ten minutes, but it passed in a blur. Just as it was building to that magnificent climax, and yet again without any warning, Matt was in the crowd again. This time he entered right through the middle, using nothing but chairs and the arms of willing fans for support.

The venue was exploding, with everyone screaming the lyrics along with Matt, surging ever so slightly to try and get closer to him, with that frantic drumbeat getting louder and louder from the stage. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any more intense they would. Once again it looked like Matt was going to miss my area of the crowd, but then, just as the song was reaching its absolute climax, there he was, literally standing on the seats of me and my mates, directly next to and above us.

It was an oddly surreal moment. I don’t think I will ever forget, as long as I live, standing there right next to Matt Berninger, throwing out both my arms towards the illuminated ceiling of The Palais and screaming along with thousands of other people and the impossibly close voice of Matt “IT TAKES AN OCEAN NOT TO BREAK!”. He must have stayed right on our seats for at least a minute, or it certainly seemed like it. It was utterly magic, as we helped support him, cheered, screamed, and sung along all at the same time. The crescendo of Terrible Love was otherworldly, and I will never forget it.

After what seemed like an eternity Matt moved through our area of the crowd and the song came to its end. Despite knowing how The National traditionally end live shows, part of me was almost certain that they would finish with Terrible Love. The idea of playing anything else seemed almost insulting to what we had just witnessed. But sure enough, the band left the microphones and walked right up to the front of the stage for an unplugged version of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.

I could not think of a more fitting way to end the amazing concert. It was so beautiful, with a softly played acoustic guitar underpinning Matt’s voice which somehow seemed only more sublime without a microphone. After having seen videos with entire crowds serenading the band with lead vocals for this song I was slightly disappointed with the sound emanating from the crowd, but even though I felt like I was the only person singing along I could still sense the similarly hushed singing from everyone around me, which certainly created an amazing atmosphere. I would be interested to hear if those towards the back could hear the song clearly, because it was certainly very quiet.

It really didn’t matter however, because it was another sublime moment. It was truly beautiful and, yes, majestic. The emotion that Matt worked into every single lyric was spellbinding, and the decision to play the song unplugged was an inspired one.

And just like that, the show was over, and The National left the stage.

It was only then that I realised I had goosebumps, and that I had them for the entire show. It was a truly perfect gig. I didn’t know live music could be this beautiful.

The setlist was most certainly a winner. Every song from ‘High Violet’ was played except for Little Faith, and there was also a healthy helping of ‘Boxer’, as well as a few older favourites. I do wish Green Gloves and Lit Up had been played, but even in hindsight I don’t think I would have changed a single thing about the concert. You don’t mess with perfection.

I won’t soon forget singing along to every single word of the show, and the climax of Terrible Love will forever be associated with singing it right next to Matt, surrounded by three of my best mates, as the rest of the world simply dissolved around us and nothing else mattered.

The National are the best band in the world. Music, quite simply, does not come any better than this.

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22 Responses to “Gig Review: The National @ The Palais, 9th January”

  1. Awesome review, it really was amazing! So jealous that you got such great seats.

    I was in the dress circle, close to being about as far as you could get from the stage… it was still mesmerising, but thought I’d let you know that it sounded as though nearly everyone was singing along to Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, yet I could still hear Matts voice, as far away as I was. It really was an insane night.
    Keep up the great posts!

  2. Nice use of Instagram there ;)

    • Haha thanks, it was actually Hipstamatic. I may have gone a bit over the top. I was having a Histpa-off with my mate next to me, but we were both beaten by the girl in front of us who had actually brought a polaroid camera to the show.

  3. “Little Faith” is one of the best from High Violet I reckon, but sounds like an ace gig. : )

  4. Great review of an amazing gig, I’m going to put an early
    vote out there for best show of 2011 already. It will be hard to
    beat for sure. One thing about Vanderlyle, I was 7 rows back and on
    the same side of the stage as you and it was quiet from the crown
    in that area but I think that was more that no one wanted to drown
    out the band, everyone was singing along but just in hushed tones.
    Reverent I would say.

  5. Fantastic review, mate. It was almost as if I was there.
    Your passion for the music and The National really comes through
    brilliantly. Can really identify with your thoughts on ‘Terrible
    Love’. Like the photos with the strong down-lighting too. @Sophia –
    ‘I think that was more that no one wanted to drown out the band,
    everyone was singing along but just in hushed tones.’ I think
    you’re spot on here. I went to two National shows in London in
    December and felt exactly the same.

    • Thanks so much, “it was almost as if I was there” is the highest compliment I can possibly receive. Having heard Vanderlyle from the balcony now I completely agree with you guys, it was hushed singing and it only added to the atmosphere.

  6. Awesome review as usual mate. I will never ever forget
    singing Terrible Love with Matt! Was incredible. I made a playlist
    on my ipod with the setlist from that night…it’s good. But not
    the same unfortunately. I liked the ‘some idiots in the first row’
    part. Nice.

  7. Great review! It really was an amazing gig! I was 9 rows
    back on the left of the stage, and as for Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
    it felt rude to sing along with it!! I just wanted to be able to
    hear the band! They were so mesmerising, that it almost felt
    intrusive to be singing along when they are belting out this
    amazing acoustic version. But I didn’t realise they always do this,
    and usually people sing along! Some people were singing, not loudly
    tho, kind of hushed like, so they could still hear Matt.

    • Thanks Amie, I think you’re right- there was quite a bit of hushed singing going on, myself included. I listened to it from the balcony last night and it definitely sounded a bit stronger.

  8. were you drunk? the sound was fairly hollow in parts, Matt could only keep tune in his limited but amazing low register, showing the only limit to this bands qualities, that being tuning, the backing vocals were way too floral and the brothers started to get twitchy when the lead started to regain some talent, which probable cause was his high level of inebriation?

    apart from massive sound problems, it was an entertaining gig, but i think its best to be honest!

    • oh that last song was amazing!!

    • Obviously I am being honest, it’s called an opinion and different people have different ones. Just because you disagree doesn’t mean I’m lying nor that I was drunk, and to suggest so is both arrogant and absurd.

    • Not one person I have spoken to (including myself) has said this gig was anything less than the best musical experience of their life. JB Hifi told me that since that gig, they have sold out of every album The National have produced due to a massive influx of people captured by the band’s performance.

      If you read through the other reviews on this site you will see that the author is always honest, even if it means pointing out major flaws in a gig or album he has had such high expectations for, so I think it is a tad insulting to imply otherwise.

    • I read this last night and I got goosebumps just reading
      it, top job. I concur with every word of this review, so much so
      that I thought I had written it myself while sleeping after the
      show. I’ve had a hard time getting friends into The National so
      it’s good to hear that someone else is almost moved to tears by
      these guys. I’m off to New York City in 2 weeks to see my
      girlfriend who has recently moved there. I’m looking forward to
      rolling around Brookyln and Manhattan listening to The National to
      see what emotions it provokes (I’ll give Interpol a go as well to
      be fair!) I’ve seen some pretty awesome gigs so it’s pretty hard
      for me to pick my favourite. I’ve followed the Foo Fighters for
      years so seeing them and John Paul Johns/Jimmy Paige at Wembley is
      hard to top. Sunday night’s gig though was an absolute climax of
      emotions and as such, I’m going to file this review and read it
      periodically as I couldn’t think of a better way to remember the
      night.

  9. I have to agree with Darwin- and add some. I thought they were way to loose- Mistaken for Strangers and Bloodbuzz had timing problems- there was a massive tempo shift from verse to chorus with Mistaken which made me feel cynical till the end of the show- at least that encore was a blast!- otherwise, a disappointing show for me. Not big on hte over the head hnd claps either. Perhaps you had to be down the front.

    • Well at least you didn’t say I was drunk or call me a liar. Ultimately everyone is going to get something unique out of a show like this. I kind of feel sorry for people who didn’t enjoy it, because personally I don’t understand how that is even possible. But that’s just my own opinion. My experience, along with a whole lot of other people, was that it was absolutely incredible, and if yours is otherwise then that’s cool too.

      • I wasn’t there, but it sounded amazing from what I’ve heard. That said everyone has their own opinions. I’ve been disappointed with many gigs that others have raved about… Great review though :)

  10. I guess as you get older you get a little more jaded- and I am nearly 40- Seen a lot of gigs in my time- here and overseas and this one was good but not great. Dirty Three in Adelaide circa 1994 stands out, Nick Cave and the Bad seeds at the Metro in Melbourne in ’91- passion, Fire and amazing musicianship- the National seemed kinda sloppy and far from the tight well oiled unit I was expecting. If Matt hadnt ventured into the crowd and broke that barrier I would have left during the encore

  11. Wow, this review is bloody amazing – totally felt the goosebumps, just reading it! Helps me make the oscillating decision about going to Harvest….ha! Thanks!

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