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Friday, August 16, 2013

A glorious picnic with The National

The National (+ Daughter). Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, August 11th 

The National live. Photo: Bloodbuzzed
... At a cemetery. Doesn't sound incredibly strange to you?  And what does it have to do with music, and with The National in particular? I completely shared your feelings before the concert, but it does have an explanation...

The image of a gig queue transformed into a picnic is so shocking for a Spaniard concertgoer like me. People armed with glasses, blankets, towels, chairs, bottles and of course all sort of drinks and food... what is this all about? Aren't we going to a gig? Plus, the concert was at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, as the name suggests... a cemetery where some entertainment celebrities rest, including Johnny Ramone. A thousand questions about the audience behavior and the development of the concert itself were raised, but they all got solved quickly.

Picnic time! Photo: Bloodbuzzed
First, the "picnic issue" turned out to be a fantastic solution: the ones looking forward for the gig (the core, die-hard fans, I guess) in the forefront as usual, while the rest enjoyed their meals & drinks in a more chilled way, just a few meters behind the standing crowd. As a result, the mood of the night was relaxed and pleasant, the only focus being what it should be: the music. And second, the "cemetery issue". The audience was respectful and careful, and the sound of both bands was fantastic all night. Our concerns regarding the place vanished, replaced with a very special sensation. The vibes of an unforgettable night.

Daughter. Photo: Bloodbuzzed
Support act Daughter opened the event with the sun coming down the Hollywood Cemetery. Among the new best discoveries and records of the year so far to me, I was really looking forward to watch them live, as my first experience with them at Primavera Sound 2013 was quite frustrating. Not this time. The British trio proved that tunes from their debut album "If You Leave" are haunting, a crossover between intimate folk-rock and the stark minimalistic beauty of The XX. If only, a minor complaint would be the sometimes repetitive percussive sounds, no doubt a powerful rhythm section fire-powering Elena's delicate voice, but perhaps swallowing her just for the sake of putting more muscle to their music live.

A real "Big Three". Photo: Bloodbuzzed
And then came the hour of The National, after a trailer presenting the "Mistaken for Strangers" documentary (this is Hollywood, after all) and the mesmerizing "Magic Chords" from SharonVan Etten giving the entrance to the band members. Since the opening couplet, "I Should Live in Salt" and "Don’t Swallow the Cap", the bar was set really high, the first one gaining weight and punch live, while the second highlighting the multiple talents of the Dessner brothers (their backing voices ever-present all night).

I won’t continue this chronicle with a song-by-song analysis, it would become overlong. Besides, I don’t know that many superlative adjectives in English to go on without repeating myself for 25 fantastic tunes on a concert that went beyond the two hours. This was my fifth time at a National's gig, and in the last three times I have attended them with different people with very different music tastes and levels of knowledge about the band, but the reaction has been always the same, summarized in the recurrent comment: wow, how good they are!

Screaming dandy. Photo: Bloodbuzzed
Indeed they are. I don’t know if it’s their sophisticated, serious image, but my guess is that people consider The National a “studio band”, that has to be a bit boring or too ecstatic live. So, when infallible tunes like “Mistaken for Strangers” or “Squalor Victoria” (the crowd went wild), newbies do not only watch how stunning songs are played, but also a band that really knocks you out. This is particularly the case with Matt’s performance. The elegant gentleman, dressed & singing like a dandy, erupting like a roaring beast when the song requires it. Sorry punks and metal-heads, but it is not about how much you scream, but that when you do it does “mean” something. Whether is their fierce, straightforward side, like top-notch "Sea of Love" (expected greatness and that’s exactly what I found), or is refined, subtler version, like "Demons", there's always plenty to get attracted to, and a pulsating beat (National fans know how important is the unique drumming from Bryan Devendorf) a tension that propels the tunes to another dimension.

As expected, "Trouble Will Find Me" got the major focus, with 10 tunes overall on the gig’s setlist, which is a clear sign of the group’s confidence in the new material. The intensity of “Pink Rabbits” and “I Need My Girl” (that Matt announced saying he could also sing about less miserable/ darker issues) were among the best moments of the show, while “Humiliation”, with a mind-blowing finale, or the superb “This Is the Last Time” and “Graceless” just confirmed the masterful pieces they are. Even "Heavenfaced", for me one of the less inspired new songs, chosen especially for such a “special venue”, improved dramatically live.

Band on fire. Photo: Bloodbuzzed
But The National was also generous on "High Violet", performing many of its winning cards, like “Anyone’s Ghost”, "Afraid of Everyone", "Conversation 16", “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “England”, received with an overwhelming response of the public (very good taste you have fellow Americans). A couple of incursions into “Alligator” with killer “Abel” (another tune reinforcing the idea of a shocking band for newcomers) and “All the Wine” (that “like every Californian” line), plus some of “Boxer” masterpieces, like “Slow Show”, that allowed a cheerful Matt to show his range as a showman (they were in a relaxed mood and funny remarks, fuelled also by the place, abounded) commenting how surprised he was this song was being used for weddings despite the references to “his penis” in the lyrics, or personal favorite “Fake Empire”, one of THE SONGS, that closed the gig before the encore…

Acoustic National. Photo: Bloodbuzzed
Ah, the encore. As someone already “initiated” on The National live, I knew this is usually reserved to the “Matt’s goes crazy” territory. And it was, of course, with the explosions of “Mr. November” and “Terrible Love”. But what I didn’t expect was “About Today” to start the last batch of songs, and the end with a choral (Daughter members included) rendition of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”. Absolutely devastating* for this humble writer.

An afternoon that started with doubts ended being a glorious picnic. Simply one of the best gigs of my life, thanks to the greatest band (in my opinion) of the planet today.

*Yes, that means tears…

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