I had to ask.
“Hi Matt, I’m a huge fan of The National, but I’m also a huge fan of hip-hop. Do you listen to much hip-hop? Do you like Outkast?”
Matt Berninger, lead singer and frontman of Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati five-piece The National, was partaking in a Q&A session after the Melbourne premiere screening of Mistaken for Strangers, the psuedo-documentary put together by his younger brother, metalhead and amateur horror filmmaker Tom.
Matt chuckles slightly, and answers that he doesn’t listen to much hip-hop, but he is a fan of Kendrick Lamar’s latest masterpiece, good kid, m.A.A.d city. Good taste.
Most of the questions, of course, were about the documentary. Mistaken for Strangers is certainly an oddity when it comes to music documentaries. Hilarious, awkward, touching, revealing, it is all of these things and more. It starts out with Tom being asked to tour with the band as a roadie, helping carry out mundane tasks, such as making sure there are towels and the rights amount of food and drink available at all times.
Tom, who is impetuous and immature – but also charming and genuine – fails at the majority of these jobs, drinks too much, and annoys the band and their manager throughout. But the documentary takes an interesting turn; though Tom set out to make a rock n roll doco, hoping to film all the partying that takes place off the stage, Mistaken for Strangers focuses inward. Tom’s flaws are laid bare. He feels “depressed” that his older brother has become a famous rock star – “you’re more famous than any of my friends”, “I haven’t even met 5,000 people”. But Matt, in spite of his frustrations, reaches out to Tom, and in a moving moment tells him that he had years of failure in the band before they ever made it big. There’s genuine brotherly love there, despite their polar opposite personalities.
Tom breaks down on camera several times but with the help of his brother and his wife Carin finishes the film. In the closing scene Tom runs the microphone cord behind his brother as Matt goes on one of his crowd excursions during Terrible Love. When the song finishes, Tom runs backstage with a giant grin on his face, a sweet finish to a surprisingly brilliant documentary.
Once the film and Q&A session had finished we hailed a cab from the corner of Lygon and Elgin Sts and hightailed it – well, it was 7pm driving through the Melbourne CBD so that’s probably not the right term – to the Sidney Myer Music Bowl.
Yet again I made the mistake of buying a general admission ticket. I have done it four times at the Music Bowl now, for Kanye West, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire and The National. Luckily with most of the GA crowd still sitting on picnic blankets, we got ourselves a good spot just a couple of metres back from the rail, to the right of stage. We could almost make out the band.
Luluc, a Melbourne duo, opened. The National obviously see something in them – Aaron Dessner is working with them. However I somehow managed to not hear a note of their music, such was my excitement for The National. I’ve seen them twice before – at the Palais Theatre in January 2012 – one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen – and at Harvest Festival later that same year.
I was even more pumped for this concert. Their latest, Trouble Will Find Me, is absolutely superb, nearly overrun with great tracks. One of the best, “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, opened proceedings, and set a good tone for the rest of the night with its propulsive rhythm section (regular bassist Scott Devendorf is absent, having just become a father, but is ably replaced), anxious guitar tones and contemplative singing and lyricism from Matt. The National certainly embrace melancholy, but it’s never on-the-nose, and Matt seeks to make everyone feel okay – “I’m not alone / I’ll never be…”
“I Should Live in Salt”, an ode to Tom, follows, before a typically sterling performance of “Mistaken for Strangers”. The urgency found on this track, driven by the band and Matt’s paranoid vocal delivery, never fails to make my hair stand on end. “Sorrow” features a long intro, but most of the crowd – who cheer loudly throughout the night – recognise it before Matt starts singing. It’s a song that sounds sublime live – they did play it for six straight hours once.
Stunning High Violet highlight “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is next. More than any other song, this is probably the tune that made me a big fan of The National. Their performance of it at the Palais more than two years ago drove me to tears, and it is as emotionally resonating tonight. Though many of us can’t relate specifically to the chorus – “I was carried / to Ohio in a swarm of bees”, “I never married / but Ohio don’t remember me” – there is an overarching sense of regret in the song that is universal. It’s also another interesting look into how Matt and the band might feel about their place in the world now that they have far outgrown their homes – “the floors are falling out from / everybody I know”.
One of the most thrilling aspect of The National’s live shows, something that sets them well apart from their contemporaries, is their stage presence. Though I love the vast majority of their studio tracks, essentially every song is improved upon live, benefiting from a very muscular sound and passionate performances. Matt in particular, who from the outside seems to be quite prim and proper, lets loose live. “Sea of Love”, the biggest rocker from Trouble Will Find Me, is the first of several songs tonight where he lets out a primal, guttural scream. “I see you rushing down / what did Harvard teach you / I see you rushing down / tell me how to reach you…” Look up a live performance of it, or “Afraid of Everyone” or “Squalor Victoria” or “Abel” or “England” or “Graceless” or “Humiliation” or “Mr November” or “Terrible Love”, on all of which he tries his best to expunge his throat.
Trouble Will Find Me closer “Hard to Find” is a welcome surprise. The lyrics on the album mean a great deal to me, and Hard to Find, despite its simplicity, is one of my favourite tracks. The second half of the track, where the arpeggiating guitar, horns and light, propulsive drumming all combine, is truly beautiful. “I’m not holding out for you / but I’m still watching for the signs…”
“Afraid of Everyone” and “Conversation 16” are two very welcome High Violet cuts. They’re still playing most of that album live, which is a great thing – the songs fit in seamlessly with new and old material and it is in my opinion the best National album, though in time Trouble Will Find Me may take its place. The paranoia and anxiety found in “Afraid of Everyone” is powerful and effortless, and the song swells to an unforgettable conclusion, the music cascading as Matt cries “your lies are swallowing my soulsoulsoulsoul” over and over again.
I mentioned above that The National’s songs take on another dimension live. There is no great example of that than Boxer cut “Squalor Victoria”. On first listening to Boxer it was one of my least favourites, just saved by Bryan Devendorf’s masterful drumming. Live, it starts off unassuming, Bryan carrying most of the tune, before Matt wades in, “underline everything / I’m a professional / in my beloved white shirt”. It carries on for a couple of minutes, sounding terrific, building the tension, before finally unleashing in a wild, cacophonous outro, every member of the band shredding their instruments and Matt viciously screaming “SQUALOR VICTORIA”. No National gig should ever be without it, and it is always a pleasure seeing the reactions of those who have not witnessed it live before.
“This is the Last Time” is quite possibly my favourite National song. It achieves something quite remarkable across its five minutes. The first two-thirds of the track are really quite positive and upbeat, and it’s impossible not to smile as the rest of the band come in as Matt sings “oh, don’t tell anyone I’m here / I’ve got Tylenol and beer…” But then come the lines “I won’t be vacant anymore / I won’t be waiting anymore”. On the surface they’re quite affirming, but like the best National songs, there’s an underlying sense of anxiety there evident in the music and the delivery. After this, the tune completely changes, becoming quite melancholic as Matt sings “Jenny I am in trouble / can’t get these thoughts out of me / Jenny I’m seeing double / I know this changes everything / it takes a lot of pain / to pick me up / baby you gave me bad ideas / baby you left me sad and high…” To achieve such a contrast of emotions over the course of one song is no mean feat, and The National pull it off with aplomb.
The electric Alligator track “Abel” is always a ridiculous amount of fun and sees a bevy of hands rise in the air. From this point onwards the show is flawless – though there weren’t really any flaws prior to this point – and they could close the main set out with any of the seven tracks that follow, such is their power and response from the crowd. It’s impossible to feel bad when “Slow Show” and “Apartment Story” play, lifting the crowd with their beautiful spirit. The slow, slightly drunk piano of “Pink Rabbits” is another astonishing moment, and its moving outro, “you said it would be painless / a needle in a doll / you said it would be painless / it wasn’t that at all”, brings about another tear or two.
“England” is a huge live moment, and its horn blasts and all-in outro, featuring more screaming from Matt, garners the loudest response from the crowd of the night thus far. “Graceless”, the only National song to feature in the Hottest 100 – a travesty – delights, as does “About Today”, yet another song with a powerful outro. The main set finally comes to a glorious close with “Fake Empire”, giving the brass section the time to shine.
Opening the encore is the exceptional Trouble Will Find Me track “Humiliation”, which benefits from a freak-out outro that, while not necessarily needed on the studio version, is a welcome addition live. The familiar urgent guitar strains of “Mr November” then start and Matt begins the first of two long forays into the crowd. He’s been doing this for years, and it serves to add another memorable moment to an already unforgettable night. We are right behind him as he bellows “I won’t fuck us over I’m Mr November”, as distorted images of former American presidents flash maniacally on the screen behind. “Terrible Love”, their most popular song here in Australia, is perhaps the highlight of the night, such is its power, and that’s saying something given every song has been incredible.
The National, such a special band, close their shows out in a unique way. For all the mentions I’ve made of power and powerful in this review, the closer, unplugged “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” is a jaw-dropping moment. The band all huddle together near the front of the stage, the acoustic guitar begins, and the crowd falls silent. “Leave your home…” starts Matt, and by the first chorus, he is no longer needed, the thousands of willing fans packing out the Music Bowl harmonising beautifully. “I’ll explain everything to the geeks…”
We retreat, blown into submission by an outstanding gig, and I find myself singing the entire way home. I’m seeing them again in Austin in April, and cannot wait. Watch this space.