There’s definitely something enigmatic about The National. They’ve been a band for twenty years, are all seemingly grounded family men, and manage to always find themselves in the upper echelons of festival bills. And yet, they don’t rest on their laurels. They’ve just won their first Grammy, and have returned to the Sydney Opera House for the first time in four years as they tour their 2017 release, Sleep Well Beast.
Support for the night came from Sydney’s Little May. Having been away for the past year putting together tracks for their new album, it was great seeing the band move into a more aggressive and electric sound. Playing a set that was heavily weighted with new material, it didn’t afford much of a chance for the crowd to have a sing-a-long, but from my viewpoint all tracks were seemingly pretty well received. 2018 may well prove to be a big year for Little May.
The first time I saw The National was at Splendour In The Grass in 2013. Fresh on the back of releasing the brilliant Trouble Will Find Me, they were given the task of closing the Saturday night of the festival. Whether I was naïve or just plain dumb, I decided it was a good idea to go catch Bernard Fanning play his set and then head across to catch the last 45 minute of The National’s set. What followed was the most boring set ever from Fanning, and me missing the two songs I knew of The National (“Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Fake Empire”). Distraught, I stuck around for the rest of their set. This was a turning point in my relationship with The National. That set was emotive and purely heartbreaking, and set in motion my listening habits for the next four years.
Opening the night with four straight tracks off Sleep Well Beast, recent single “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” was an early fan favourite, as frontman Matt Berninger began to mix his on-stage demeanour with his now trademark bottles of wine. With possibly their biggest song ever, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, nestled into the opening third of their set, 2013 me was stoked to finally witness an almost perfect song in the flesh. It became evident pretty quickly that the band had put plenty of thought into spacing their setlist evenly, as material from just every release they’d had made an appearance at some point through the night.
As the set headed toward its middle, this is where The National came into their own. With Aaron Dessner dedicating “Wasp Nest” to his mother (“this one’s her favourite”), you got an insight into who The National are. Sure, they’re a band first and foremost, but through out the night, there were multiple occasions in which they spoke about their families. Dedicating “Carin At The Liquor Store” to his wife (“But she’ll never know. She’s here, back stage, but asleep”), Berninger enamoured himself to the crowd through this track. In saying this, he may have over indulged in the wine, as he did stumble over a couple lyrics later in the set.
The most aggressive moment of the night came in the form of the blistering “Turtleneck”. For a band that generally only plays bownbeat music or slowly build through out their tracks, “Turtleneck” was a subtle change, but one that helped break up the night.
Having just finished “Day I Die”, the band joked “It’s a nice time we’re in. Not really, but for a few fleeting seconds, it’s been good.” An obvious comment on the current political climate back in the US, it was great to have a lighter moment in a set that at times felt extremely sad. Again, it’s just what The National do. They play sad music. It was to be expected.
Closing the main set on the masterpiece that is “Fake Empire”, the band returned for a four track encore, inclusive of “Ryland”, the political anthem “Mr. November”, and the lovely and definitely not terrible “Terrible Love”, before closing on fan favourite “About Today”. If I had to have picked any track from their back catalogue to close on, “About Today” would have been it.
Exiting the stage after 23 songs and two hours, the crowd were definitely left knowing that they’d witnessed a band in their prime. The National may indeed be enigmatic, but it’s just who they are. They’ve been around for twenty years, play sad music, and win crowds over. It’s what they do.
The reviewer attended this show on February 22nd.