A performance that was nothing less than spectacularly beautiful, albeit incredibly short
The National: Live From New York’s Beacon Theatre/ The National: I Am Easy To Find, Live From New York’s Beacon Theatre
August 23rd saw the release of The National: Live From New York’s Beacon Theatre, an EP, and a concert film under the name The National: I Am Easy To Find, Live From New York’s Beacon Theatre. Catchy. Let’s get this out of the way now, though: I love The National perhaps too much to ever impartially review their work. But this will not be an impartial review, more of a response and attempt at positioning the two new works (perhaps inseparable, and to be reviewed as part and parcel of each other) in the band’s canon without necessarily being a ranked list.
The concert from which the two works draw their material from was part of a tour that saw the band travelling globally to support the upcoming release of their new album I Am Easy To Find. Many of the performances had the same format of a screening of the collaborative film the band made with Mike Mills (also called I Am Easy To Find), a Q&A session, and then a performance of the album’s material, slightly reshuffled, followed by an encore designed to please those wanting to hear their favourites songs. The band clearly knew and anticipated what would become the major gripe of even those who claimed to be their biggest fans, the same gripe that comes up from fans of any other artists with established and lengthy back catalogues of consistently solid material: “WHY DIDN’T THEY PLAY THAT SONG I LIKE, I DON’T LIKE THESE NEW ONES THAT I DON’T KNOW AND HAVE NEVER HEARD BEFORE.” In an attempt to pre-empt this and please those fans as well as the fans who supported the idea of a concert presenting entirely new songs in full, The National did two things: played select fan favourites, and attempted to present the songs as close to how they would sound on the album in an attempt to get the fans to fall in love with how they would sound.
The two recordings come specifically from a concert the month before the album was released, the songs still largely unknown to the audience. It stands in contrast to the other performances of the tour as having the Brooklyn Youth Choir, and many of the strings players involved in the production of the album, onstage for their respective. Julien Baker, This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables, and Pauline De Lassus/Mina Tindle provide vocal support throughout, supplementing the female voices that are so present on the album. It’s when we start to talk about the female voices that one of the best things (depending who you ask) about the EP and concert film reveal themselves. Throughout the performance, Matt steps back even further than he did on the album. The female voices and directions come through even more, the vocal mixing of a live performance favouring the higher register over Matt’s baritone rumble. Perhaps it was an effort to make up for Gail Ann Dorsey’s absence, whose voice is so powerful on the album and is covered for at alternate times by any one of the four vocalists onstage. The most successful replacement is no doubt Julien Baker intoning, during the musical break of “You Had Your Soul With You,” “you had no idea how hard I died when you left.” The strength of the women, however, comes through most on the song that most relies upon them for it’s success: “So Far, So Fast,” which stands out as one of the best tracks on the album and in the live performance. How it didn’t get on to the EP I’ll never understand.
The women onstage force Matt to confront the sincerity and emotion that he is often happy to sidestep and mock and quash. Matt often seems to ridicule and undermine his own lyrics with goofy stage movements and jokes, but the women invest in the emotion entirely, Kate and Pauline particularly. Matt seems self-conscious to commit completely to sincerity, something he’s almost never done live anyway (without shouting and raging about the stage). Kate and Pauline, however, completely lose themselves in the quieter, subtler moments and lyrics, pulling out the emotion wholeheartedly and sincerely. Meanwhile Matt stands besides them clutching at the plastic cup of tequila, the mic stand, and the crook of his elbow, anywhere to hide his hands and hold on for support.
Live, The National change. What is easily dismissed by some as a mopey band of middle-aged men whining and playing pretentious music becomes a rock band; they get louder, Matt screams, guitar parts reach frantic heights, the drums pound harder and sometimes faster. Matt’s voice also changes. When he performs live it has a fragility that it often lacks in studio recordings, pushing his deep register and wavering slightly as he tries to force it out louder. His voice rattles, instead of smoothly pouring out as it does on studio recordings. At the Beacon Theatre he’s not just trying to rise above the music, he’s now also trying to be heard alongside the female voices accompanying him on stage. Then come moments where his voice thrives, sat in the middle of his register, as with the performance of “Roman Holiday,” where Matt’s voice effortlessly floats between the lowest realms of his range and the ‘higher’ notes he explored in side project El Vy and brought back to subsequent The National albums. The two other songs that mine his gravelly depths perfectly in the performance, “The Pull Of You” and “Not In Kansas” both contain stream of conscious passages that allow his murmurs to stretch and meander and walk themselves around the room. “The Pull Of You” is also the only song in the performance where Matt lets loose and howls out “maybe I’ll take it out inside with rain falling around us/we all know this rain is hard to take/I know I can get attached and then unattached to my own versions of others/ my view of you comes back and drops away.” The words catch and scratch in his throat as he propels them out at the audience; a freakout roar that perfectly frames the preceding verse of what is essentially spoken word poetry.
Where the concert thrives, as with all live performances from The National, is in the moments of departure from the existing presentation of the songs in album, and single, form. Since there was a clear attempt from the band, particularly Matt, to hold themselves in and attempt to portray the songs faithfully to how they sound on the album, this was sometimes lost. Indeed, at a performance in London as part of the same tour session, I noted that Matt seemed even more pent-up and stuck inside, his movements and stance full of tension and restraint as he pulled back from the howls that the songs often provoked in him (for an obvious example of the release see the band’s performance of Graceless on SNL, or the aforementioned performance of Pull of You, in this recording). As such, it’s easy to say the encore holds some of the best performances of the footage (though, of course a band would be more comfortable performing something they’ve done countless times before). What Live From New York’s Beacon Theatre gives us is a live The National that is a little more willing to sit inside the words and production of the album, a band more accepting of their sincerity (whether willingly or not). While it can’t match up to live performances from The Virginia EP (which contains, in my opinion, the definitive version of “About Today”), it faithfully represents both sides of the band as they are in live performances. It also provides yet another version of “Rylan,” whose live miniscule, or not so miniscule, differences from other live recordings can now be picked apart for years to come.
Also, props to whoever decided to release the concert with subtitles immediately available, especially on a streaming platform where so many works are subtitle-less, particularly since so few concert films do this.