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The National music review (Sydney Opera House)

American band, The National, returned to the Sydney Opera House Forecourt last night (February 21) after playing there on their last visit to Australia in 2014. They’re here supporting their 2017 album, Sleep Well Beast, which won them a Grammy for Best Alternative Album in January.

Time will tell whether Sleep Well Beast resonates as well with a fickle public as their much loved albums from the mid-noughties, Alligator (2005), and Boxer (2007) which spawned the popular Fake Empire which featured in a Barack Obama 2008 campaign video.

Sleep Well Beast is something of a change for the band as synth melodies accompany angular electronic and organic beats. However, after listening to Sleep Well Beast, I wouldn’t revise my description of their sound as a contemporary, indie-rock cross between Leonard Cohen (especially via Matt Berninger’s vocal delivery) and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The comparison with Cohen and Cave very much includes the melancholia found in The Nationals’ musical stylings and lyrical themes.

The National are a band of brothers with vocalist Matt Berninger accompanied by Aaron Dessner (guitar, keyboards) and his brother Bryce Dessner (guitar, keyboards), joined by the brotherly rhythm section composed of Bryan Devendorf (bass) and Scott Devendorf (drums). The five piece’s live set up was boosted at the Opera House Forecourt last night by two additional musicians.

I started paying attention to The National late last year when I heard Slow Show in a café. It was good enough to make concentrating on my Twitter feed impossible. I think The National are better on record than live, despite last night’s performance being oh-so-note perfect. Mostly it felt very forced to me and Berninger has little charisma.

The tunes from Sleep Well Beast worked best with the third tune of the night, Guilty Party, working particularly well, as did Day I Die which was very moving. But only about a third of the set reached that level of gravitas.

Their best tunes had introductions from Berninger, including Bloodbuzz Ohio and the excellent I Need My Girl. He introduced the latter with: “Don’t get out of your couch, stay in your couch and sip your beer through your straw and listen to this song”. I also really enjoyed Fake Empire. These songs were outstanding, but for such an event amid the throng on a stunning evening on the Opera House forecourt, I wanted more.

Photo of The National on the Sydney Opera House forecourt by Daniel Boud

4 responses to “The National music review (Sydney Opera House)

  1. I guess if you started listening to them last year you just don’t get the whole concept of the band. Yes indeed melancholic thus not so catchy for your ears or eyes. It’s a cerebral music which means much more than it looks. Matt Berninger is actually so charismatic , the musicians are just genius . Truly enjoyed their live which was such a purely great pleasure.

      1. Pretty close I woould say…

        Bryce David Dessner (born April 23, 1976) is an American composer[1] and guitarist based in Paris, best known as a member of the Grammy Award-winning band The National.[2] Dessner has also made a name for himself as an acclaimed composer. His orchestral, chamber, and vocal compositions have been commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Metropolitan Museum of Art (for the New York Philharmonic), Kronos Quartet, BAM Next Wave Festival, Barbican Centre, Edinburgh International Festival, Sydney Festival, eighth blackbird, Sō Percussion, New York City Ballet, and many others. His work Murder Ballades featured on eighth blackbird’s album Filament, an album he also produced and performs on, won the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance. Bryce has worked with some of the world’s most creative and respected musicians and visual artists, including Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Jonny Greenwood, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Justin Peck, Ragnar Kjartansson, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Marcel Dzama and Matthew Ritchie, among others. Dessner is also the founder of the MusicNOW Festival, a founding member of the improvisatory instrumental group Clogs and co-founder of Brassland Records. He has a master’s degree in music from Yale University.[3]

      2. Disagree, Benjamin. I don’t think someone who has been listening to the band for only a year is qualified to make that call but we’re all entitled to our opinions I guess. :)

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