The Recital Hall at Angel Place, in the center of Sydney, is a modern concert space created for intimate, chamber-music ensembles like the Australian Chamber Orchestra to perform before a large audience. The steep, multi-storied space packs 1,200 seats, and though it wasn’t completely sold out, it filled nicely for the National’s final show as part of the Sydney Festival.
Seeing a rock band like the National in a space like this is a little off-putting. The band commented at one point that a shock accompanied their walk into the clean, cavernous space for the first time. It struck me that watching them was a little like watching a band playing in a movie. It’s not that it wasn’t at times overwhelmingly loud, not even that it wasn’t emotional. But, like watching a movie, there was little interaction between the viewer and the spectacle in front of the audience’s eyes.
Still, the experience heightened the introspective sense that the National bring to their music—the quiet quality in their sound, and in Matt Berninger’s resonant voice. It’s difficult to describe, but, especially in a live setting, it makes you feel self-consciously alone.
Clogs opened with a casual set, sparkling through an immaculate series of original songs. Scuttling between electric violin, viola, guitars, piano, steel drums, marimba, bassoon, and some kind of table accordion (with additional trumpet, trombone, and saxophone for some songs), the group built a remarkably full sound. Layering these instruments over loops of music recorded in real time, the waves of acoustic sound formed the backdrop for a series of limpid violin melodies and crashing crescendos.
“2:3:5” and “Death and the Maiden,” from 2006’s Lantern, provided an opportunity for the violinist and creative whirlwind Padma Newsome’s virtuosic string playing. Though at times it seemed the songs paused to allow him to demonstrate a catalog of difficult bowing techniques (and though, as my violinist prodigy friend pointed out, his vibrato at the beginning was a bit too narrow), you couldn’t help but be impressed by Newsome. He’d go on to play a big part in the National’s set as well.
According to the group, they’re in the middle of recording their new album in Sydney, and for the first time, it features vocals. Songs like the luminous “Red Seas” lie somewhere between the group’s pop minimalism and Antony and the Johnsons’ artsy folk.
Newsome’s voice is surprisingly affecting, high and artless. As it floated above the interlocking, straining rhythms of the guitar and marimba lines, you could have legitimately believed you were hearing the birth of a whole new sort of pop music, complex and breathtakingly beautiful.
Most of the members of Clogs returned to the stage for at least a part of the National’s set. In fact, guitarist Bryce Dessner and string player/keyboardist Padma Newsome form part of the band’s core line-up, a classic rock-band setup that nevertheless ends up sounding quite unique. Live, the group extends the introductions and climaxes of songs, roughening the crescendos into hulking wall-of-sound cacophonies. More jangley and open-sounding, less blended, with more raw power than on record, the group come off as baroque-rock maestros. In these moments, Newsome would rush over to the center of the stage and attack the strings of his violin wildly, a buoyant foil to Matt Berninger’s introverted singing.
Berninger cradles the microphone, bends over it as if it were a lover. He sings for himself, looking downwards, occasionally reminding me of the film portrayals of Joy Division’s legendary Ian Curtis. He is inscrutable and fascinating.
The band played all of the songs off their stellar 2007 album Boxer, as well as a swathe of earlier material. Earlier songs like “Secret Meeting” were met with scattered yelps from the otherwise rooted-to-their-seats crowd. It made no difference—this was an incredible show. “Fake Empire” was something like a religious experience. Breaking out of the dark pummel, a deep lyricism emerged in the middle of the set: “Slow Show”, “Green Gloves”, and “Squalor Victoria”, the downbeat emotional heart of Boxer. With deep emotion, Berninger led the rapt audience into their own dark room, navigating the emotions of envy, the desperate way we clutch to faded love.
The same night in Sydney, Björk was performing on the steps of the Opera House, and Arcade Fire were appearing at the Enmore Theatre. But at the cathartic, epic end of “Mr. November”, I, for one, wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders… I won’t fuck us over”, Berninger sang, the heartbreaking, defiant rallying-cry of a generation already past its sexual prime. Did you hear those cannon-shot drums? The sound is so intense, it levels the three tiers of the Recital Hall. We’re all back in our rooms in high school, facing expectation and obligation and fear of failure. “I won’t fuck us over”. No, Matt, you couldn’t if you tried.