There is much to be said about The National’s recent performance at Thebarton Theatre as a sideshow for the Harvest Festival. Not all of it is good, it must be said; however, anything that didn’t quite hit the mark was so spectacularly eclipsed by that which did that the show shall surely be remembered by its audience for solely the right reasons.
First up were fellow U.S. countrymen, The Walkmen. The opening song was sweet and unassuming, if a little long for a crowd impatient to get going. An indie band with that little extra something special, The Walkmen featured triangles and an organ, as well as a vocalist with a distinctively Dylanesque voice. However, this wasn’t really enough to fill the operatic space that is Thebarton Theatre. Though the band has been around since 2000, they felt lacking in the confidence that comes with experience. In fact, with the exception of a drummer who was clearly drumming his heart out, the band could be accused of lacking in charisma. A more intimate setting would be appropriate to see this band at its best.
Here must be mentioned an unfortunate audio annoyance that featured in both opening and main acts – speaker feedback. More prominent during The Walkmen’s set, it was an unfortunate distraction. Also, while on the subject of distractions, the chattering of the crowd – audible over The Walkmen’s softer tunes – was frankly embarrassing. Yes, we all want the main act to start, but a little consideration is due to the supports.
Come the changeover between sets and the audience was provided with a backdrop of ‘behind-the-scenes’ footage of one of The National’s gigs. And lo and behold, just as we could see the band make its way to the stage on the screen before us, the band itself came out. Cameras set up around the stage would show high contrast images of the band members playing on the screen behind, along with other, more dream-like visuals, including city scenes and underwater explorations. The backdrop added perfectly to the atmosphere and gave an extra dimension to the sometimes mournful, sometimes urgent, melodies. While part of the screen was flickering in the beginning, it was either fixed or stopped of its own accord a few songs into the set, so this particular AV crisis was averted.
Consummately polite and quietly charming, it’s easy to see how The National could be the ‘nicest guys in show-business’, as announced by their support act. Not an energetic band in the sense of frequent leaping about the stage, the band nevertheless has a stage presence that suggests their control over the passion that lies within their music.
However, any suspicion we might have harboured that the main act would be a repeat of the excessively controlled opener, was well and truly quashed by the time ‘Squalour Victorians’ came out. Or, it would be more accurate to say, burst out. Transforming the title line of the song into a primal scream, Matt Berninger – already a powerful vocalist at the least of times – showed another side to his usually restrained, despondent style.
At the close of the song, with the lights turned down to almost pitch darkness, the theatre responded ecstatically.
Towards the end, at the behest of the encore-craving audience (there really in nothing like stamping feet on wooden floors in a large, open hall to get your message across), came the almost inevitable return to stage. The second song into the encore was crowd favourite ‘Mr. November’, which could have easily finished the show on a high. However another, less boisterous song followed, lowering the mood. This could have been a disappointment – even despite Berninger’s thrilling foray into the crowd – had the show ended there. But it didn’t. To give the final, loving send-off, the band treated its adoring audience to an acoustic number, ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’. All the plugs came out and the microphones were abandoned, with the band members assembling at the front of the stage. After the crowd had settled down, the band began to play. Entranced, the audience sang along.
– Serrin Prior