Nestled high upon the hillside, overlooking the prettier, more rustic region of Lyon, Le Grand Théâtre — a two millennia old Roman theater, and home to the two month long festival Les Nuits de Fourvière — acts as one of the most unorthodox but irrefutably stunning venues I’ve ever been lucky enough to visit. Tonight’s double bill is just one of a two month long series of events ranging from an Iggy and The Stooges gig to a night dedicated to the music of French jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt to a performance of the George Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. It’s a testament, then, to the quality of the music of both bands that they should be billed alongside such respected names from both the Classical and Jazz worlds.
With the group now well past their ten-year anniversary, it’s unsurprising to witness the confidence with which The National stride onstage this evening. They immediately attack with their most effective weapon — the subtlety with which they present “Runaway” hushes the crowd from the get go.
And as if this air of understatement doesn’t immediately make you putty in the hands of their sophisticated charm, midway through their set it is revealed, much to the jubilance of the French crowd, that guitarist Bryce Dessner is a fluent French speaker (or at least able enough to string together a sufficient number of unbroken sentences to fool my uneducated ears). Frontman Matt Berninger, whose between-song banter is tonight received by a largely unresponsive, non-English speaking crowd, uses this as an opportunity to bring his dry sense of humor to the fore: “More people clap when he talks”, he duly comments.
The band lean more and more upon the understated quality of their music as the set continues. In fact, even Berninger seems to be free of the theatrics that characterized his performance at the live shows at which I have previously been present — he seems rather more composed and coherent than before (it’s also worth noting then, that he is not frequently retreating to a personal winery at the back of the stage, as he has become known to do) and during the set’s climax, I’m somewhat disheartened not to see him dive into the crowd – even with raucous airings of Alligator tracks “Abel” and “Mr. November”.
But to reiterate, tonight’s National set belongs not to the energy and vitality of “Terrible Love”, “Mr. November” or even a rarer performance of Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers track “Available” (“This is as angry as it gets…” Berninger quips before the song bursts into life), but rather to the more underplayed moments, such as the also recently resurrected “Cardinal Song”, (acting here as an outro to “Available”), or the finale to “England”. Indeed, as the latter builds to its climax, I spy from my staggering view at the top of the amphitheater some fireworks set off several miles away across the other side of the city, to usher in Bastille Day. When the sights and sounds begin to work in tandem like this, it’s hard not to become utterly engrossed by the mood of the moment.
When Vampire Weekend appear just 20 minutes later though, it’s a complete turnaround — not in quality, but in approach and delivery. Of course, while the National had received a standing ovation from those seated up in the hills, the pit at the bottom of the theater — which was quite obviously comprised of a younger selection of Lyon’s inhabitants — looked less impressed. It is incredible then to see them instantly energized, even before Vampire Weekend have broken into the opening bars of “Holiday”, (then again, their intro music is Fatman Scoop’s “Put Your Hands Up”, so you know, maybe credit should be spread around a little).
This intensification of ecstatic energy about the theater continues as the band place songs such as “M79” and “A-Punk”, which can now be considered old favorites, alongside the more popular Contra tracks such as “Cousins” and “Run”. With the sun now set, the lighting of the performance is used to full effect, with regular strobes, and even the eyes of the album cover backdrop flicker between blue and red.
There are isolated moments of calm. “Taxi Cab” sees the four lined up equally onstage, a bass guitar being replaced with an electric double bass, and drums with a synth pad. But honestly, it seems it’s not what the younger members of the crowd want to hear, and when the older had just witnessed an hour of such subtlety being so deftly delivered, the music falls upon deaf ears.
But it’s a brief setback, and the band close the main set with heavy-hitters “Campus” and “Oxford Comma”, bringing not just a handful, but the entire theater to a state of elation. As we entered the theater, those opting to sit were given mats to cushion the contact between their rears and the old Roman stone seats; as we left, almost every single one had been thrown onto the stage as a positive salute to the band’s set. In fact, it seems that by the triumphant closer “Walcott”, the band have to perform with their equipment buried beneath these tokens of appreciation.
While it’s odd to see such a fifty-fifty split in the attentions of an audience, it’s clear that both bands have something worthwhile to offer. There’s a definite distinction between the National’s elegant charm and Vampire Weekend’s youthful raptures — and rightly so; there must be at least a decade between the average ages of each band. But as we move past midnight, into Bastille Day, and celebratory mood settles in, it’s clear the French crowd is in agreement that they’ve had an incredible beginning to their day of independence.
Baby, We’ll Be Fine
Afraid of Everyone
Available > Cardinal Song
Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa
I Stand Corrected
One (Blake’s Got a New Face)
Giving Up the Gun