My mind's not right.
A lot can happen in one year: birthdays are celebrated, hearts are broken, bridges are mended, babies are delivered.
That one Sunday night on 6th November 2011, a year-long wait came to an end, though the reality of it all had yet to truly sink in. Sometimes the best-laid plans never come to pass: I had been over the moon when it was first announced back in December 2010 that The National would be having a tour stopover in Asia – but the initial cancellation of that show originally scheduled for March 2011 due to the twin earthquake and tsunami disasters in Japan proved to be a real downer. However, it resulted in a massive buildup of anticipation and emotions for the rescheduled show in November – one that was unlike any other.
I don’t wanna be no runaway.
So there I was, seated at the front row of the Esplanade Theatre in Singapore as planned (there was never meant to be a Plan B), with my heart thundering incessantly in my ears in sheer excitement. I had diligently learnt all my lines, boldly made all my moves, and promptly sent off all my emails; in short, I have done all I can, and it had well and finally come down to this.
Just as the lights dimmed, a few people leaped from nowhere and blocked my view of the stage. Peeved, I jumped up and elbowed myself into a small spot right in front of the stage. Excuse me, I did not get front row tickets to see your behinds, thank you very much.
But when The National came onstage to the deafening cheers that erupted all around me, my annoyance swiftly disappeared, and I finally knew the meaning of starstruck. I watched on, fixated, as the band turned the most usual things – like striding fearlessly across the stage – into a thing of pure fairy-tale wonder.
So as Scott Devendorf magically appeared smilingly next to his brother Bryan’s drumset, Aaron Dessner boldly strapped on his trusty guitar, his younger twin Bryce lightly tinkered with the pedals, frontman Matt Berninger tightly wrapped his hands around the microphone like he always does, and Bryan struck the first magnificent drumbeats to “Runaway” from their latest album High Violet – I could suddenly feel the tingling sensation in my feet again, the throbbing of the speakers against my knees, and I began to sing and shout along – and I sang and I sang and I sang myself hoarse for the rest of the night.
“Sorry we couldn’t be here the last time,” Matt apologetically offered in between songs, referring to the cancelled March 2011 show – but we had already forgiven the band by then.
The band garnered the most sing-alongs to the tracks from High Violet – and just as well, as it was probably the album that cemented the band’s position in the hearts of many, as fans eagerly sang along to familiar lines such as “I still owe money, to the money, to the money I owe” (“Bloodbuzz Ohio”) and “I was afraid I’d eat your brains / ‘cause I’m evil” (“Conversation 16”). Having been on the road for over a year and a half now in support of the aforementioned album, the band was undeniably in their element: they were confident, comfortable, and totally in control as they switched smoothly in between songs.
I’m going down among the saints.
Stage banter was brief and kept to the minimum: “Here’s your unicorn’s tears, Bryce”, Matt cheekily handed his bandmate what looked like a cup of iced water, while holding on to his precious cup of wine in the other. (Bryce eyed it suspiciously but, being the gentleman that he is, quickly took a sip anyway.) Aaron’s question to the crowd as to who were from countries other than Singapore quickly drowned him out (fans were frantically yelling and raring to be heard: “Malaysia!” “Philippines!”); overwhelmed, the band quickly moved on to the next song.
Although it was primarily a High Violet heavy set, fans were provided with gems from their previous albums as well. “Squalor Victoria” from Boxer was virtually unrecognisable from its much tamer album counterpart – the song when played live became a whole new animal, a force of energy to be reckoned with onstage. On the other side of the spectrum, Alligator‘s “Daughters of the Soho Riots” was beautifully quiet and restrained – it was a very sincere and heartfelt version that seemed to come from the deepest recesses of Matt’s inner being. The other slower songs like “Slow Show” and “Lucky You” were accorded the same treatment; when coupled with the excellent acoustics at the venue, they became particularly fragile and heartbreaking renditions of their original selves.
To be honest, most of this I have seen and heard on the many videos of the band’s previous shows, freely available online on everyone’s favourite video sharing website – but watching it live, as the events unfolded right before your very eyes – it simply brings the awesomeness of it all to a whole new level.
And this was exactly what I came here for. The National. My number one favourite band for three years running now (my last.fm charts do not lie). Live. And Bryce with his guitar right here in front of me, on fire and totally immersed in the here and now as he played effortlessly even with his eyes closed; Matt with his haunting baritone and his halting strides on stage, fists bumping into each other and regularly drinking from a plastic mineral bottle of wine no less; Bryan working the drums like he was possessed, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a Beatle more and more, each and every day; Scott grinning broadly and sheepishly as he moved smoothly to rhythms of his own making; Aaron coolly hitting the strings to the guitar like the seasoned musician that he is, missing a note not at all.
Shit. They were so, so, so damn good.
It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk.
Standing right in front of the setlist has its pros and cons. It was hard to keep my eyes away (Bryce was a delicious distraction, in any case) and I found myself checking the list regularly. I was ecstatic that we would be getting some of the rarer-played songs (“This is an old song,” Aaron had said, just before the band launched into the famed and failproof mash-up of “Available” + “Cardinal Song” – unfortunately, not many sang along), but I was also alarmed to note how quickly we were progressing down the list.
As the band filtered out of the stage after “Fake Empire”, I mentally set myself up for the mind-blowing encore that I knew was soon to come. After a few minutes’ worth of shouts of “we want more”, complete with thunderous clapping and excessive thumping by the crowd, the encore set began soon enough with the band coming back onstage for “Lucky You”; next was the aptly-titled “Mr November” – a very appropriate choice for the month indeed. This was soon followed by Matt’s much-anticipated walkabout for “Terrible Love”: I soon lost sight of him as he dove into the crowd and busied himself by climbing over and balancing on chairs precariously, while holding on to his ever helpful dear fans for support.
But it all came to an end far too soon: for the last song, the band members stepped to the front of the stage, armed with the barest of musical instruments and stripped off their microphones, and the night closed triumphantly with the acoustic, massive sing-along session to “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”.
I cannot stress enough how precious that night was to me: it was truly a show to remember and, for me, was frankly the Best. Gig. Ever.
The concert was also the band’s first show in Asia (a fact that Aaron was quick to point out at the beginning of the show), and I dearly hoped we did enough to have them come back for more.
You own me, there’s nothing you can do.
Thank you, Matt, for the quirky Berningerisms that truly make you, you.
Thank you, Aaron, for keeping your floppy hair and for being your cool, calm and collected self.
Thank you, Bryce, for giving me that briefest of handshakes just before you got offstage.
Thank you, Scott, for all your smiles that must have set me permanently aglow that night.
Thank you, Bryan, for the unrelenting and well-timed drumbeats that held the show together.
But above all: thank you, The National, for gracing us with your presence, blessing us with your music, and for changing my life forever.
The setlist – Esplanade Theatre, Singapore / 6th November 2011:
- Anyone’s Ghost
- Mistaken for Strangers
- Bloodbuzz Ohio
- Slow Show
- Squalor Victoria
- Afraid of Everyone
- Conversation 16
- Available + Cardinal Song
- Apartment Story
- Daughters of the Soho Riots
- Fake Empire
- Lucky You
- Mr. November
- Terrible Love
- Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
More pictures from my Flickr set are available here.