Tag Archives: O2 Apollo

The National

I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees

Who knew The National now actually had “hit” songs. Who knew massive crowd sing-alongs to The National even existed, let alone were possible. I have never quite experienced anything like it.

Like the vintage sight of Matt pouring himself a glass of wine, The National have only got better with time. From gracing many a headphone with soothing baritone, irony-laced, sad, melancholic and melodic musings, to selling out the biggest concert halls (I never thought I’d end up having to tout a ticket because of leisurely waking up an hour too late to find tickets were sold out…) and becoming Indie Rock’s darlings and now on the cusp of headlining major festivals (trust me on this), their rise has been well-documented – and well deserved – and getting to see them at Manchester’s O2 Apollo allowed for a glimpse into their handling of it all. Because if 2007’s Boxer was their critical breakthrough, 2010’s High Violet their commercial “wider-audience” breakthrough, then 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me further cemented their place as everyone’s new  favourite Indie Rock band. With most of those albums receiving rave reviews, the pressure was on to deliver yet another stellar album.

Their latest effort, 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, was described by many as their heaviest to date, with angular noises, riffs and actual guitar solos, but underlying it throughout is a soft underbelly of piano, laying the foundation for one of their most subtle works yet. However, although they have most definitely learnt and evolved as a band and even embraced their newfound position, ultimately, they really haven’t done much to alter their formula: rather, it seems like dogged persistence has just finally led them to a wider audience who’ve slowly come to embrace their slow, thoughtful style and wittily self-depreciative lyricism. The new songs bear all the hallmarks of classic National songs with the interplay of the Dessner brothers’ guitars and piano, Scott Devendorf’s driving bass and the dark swagger of Matt’s voice tied together by Bryan Devendorf’s rolling drum rhythms. But a strong twinkling of piano has come to permeate their songs and a smattering of guitar solos – even duelling brothers! – to add more oomph and, dare I say it, sexiness, or to use a less disturbing word, flair. Without mentioning Matt’s stage presence as he readily stalks the stage, in and about, out and around, leaning, crouching, screaming, slow dancing his arms about as he lilts his new songs into the mic, eyes closed, lullabying the enraptured crowd into blissful dreamland.

‘Tis in such a fashion that he began the night with new album opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” easing the crowd in before launching straight into what may well be their most upbeat song to date, to which I, for one, can’t help but groove and sway along to – which is called “dancing” (dancing to The National, who’d have thought!) – with lead single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” complete with that new jagged guitar sound and first proper, uplifting solo of the night from Aaron Dessner as Matt almost ironically repeats: I can’t explain it, any other way.

With that quick one-two of differing The National styles and vibes, the stage was set and they continued with their latest LP with “Walk It Back”, complete with atypical electronic intro before Matt’s deep vocals return the track to familiar territory. As the speech segment comes on, Matt starts stalking around the stage, circling behind the drum kit and getting into the mood as he sings familiar themes of don’t want to fuck it up. No danger there Matt. They follow up with the popular “Guilty Party” that slowly builds like many of their songs, progressively, drumbeat increasing in intensity and complexity and the indispensable horn section adding just the right touch of magic to the song, à la The National, as the song grows but then steadies itself before the expectant end, a feature typical of the last album as they tamper and play with the expected but inexistent explosion present on previous offerings.

They break the succession of new songs with “Don’t Swallow the Cap” off High Violet which, with its quick rolling rhythm, hopeful lyrics and bonus Dessner guitar outro bravado providing the perfect platform for one of the night’s biggest highlights in the increasingly adored “Bloodbuzz Ohio”.
I’d never imagined I would get to hear thousands of people sing The National lyrics together in harmony and what a most stunning thing it was to both belt out those lyrics with all one’s heart and vigour and also be a part of and bathe in: a moment to close one’s eyes and marvel at how far The National have come from their early days. It’s safe to say the older songs drew a few more sing-alongs – yes, there were more! – with “Afraid of Everyone” continuing the wonderful trend

I don’t have the drugs to sort it out

 before it was back to new territory with the pleading rosy-sounding “Empire Line”, before a rip-roaring – I cannot skip the chance to use that word to describe a National song – rendition of their heaviest song to date, “Turtleneck”, as Matt writhed and contorted himself into all sorts of anguished cries and screams, to the obvious delight of the crowd who, may I say it, impressively responded to every bated offering of adulation such as the above or Aaron and Bryce’s forays to the edge of the stage.

Although the list is growing, the number of songs that could be labelled “hits” by The National is relatively short, but amongst them is an unlikely yet characteristic song in the wistful “I Need My Girl” which had all the couples lovingly cuddling up. They backed it up with the lilting guitar slides of “This Is The Last Time”, remorseful lyrics and quiet tone prompting the crowd to make themselves heard. The National then returned to their roots somewhat with one of only 3 songs from seminal album Boxer with “Apartment Story” that they appropriately dedicated to a certain Bernie who’d hosted them on her floor in Manchester during previous visits. The warm fuzzy blue and rose-coloured light-show – which was excellent throughout – adequately mirrored the lyrics in conveying the warm cosiness of being nestled in a sofa at home with loved ones (a most welcome change and remedy to my incessant mumbling of that very song as I waited outside in the cold beforehand). We’d have gladly stayed in the cosy Apollo until way past curfew.

Stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz, for days

They continued with a few rare gems starting with the tour debut of “Hard to Find”, one of the quietest songs of the evening that silenced the room to a gentle hush as we were further cradled in the warm lush tones of the piano coupled with Matt’s baritone. They followed that with the double High Violet whammy of “Lemonworld” with its cooing “doo doo” echoing around the room in mingled opposition with the preceding lines of dying in a lemonworld. In this respect, The National have a certain gift in suffusing many of their songs with undertones and murmurs of hope despite the palpable darkness, as evidenced here on “Lemonworld” or with the subtle trumpets of “Guilty Party”, that offset Matt’s feelings of uselessness with lines such as Nothing I change changes anything in “Walk It Back”, or this song’s And I’ll try to find something on this thing that means nothing enough.
The biggest surprise came next with “Conversation 16” featuring the beautifully bizarre eargasm of hundreds of people belting out the bridge

I was afraid I’d eat your brains, cause I’m evil.

They returned to pastures new with the soft and stunning “Carin at the Liquor Store”, a ballad to rival any of their work as a tranquil hush descended on the audience who bathed in such still elegance and gracefully demonstrated the band’s new status as every ear was tuned in and attentive, every mouth muted, and everyone’s gaze, will and mind enraptured and riveted.
It’s a foregone conclusion nowadays.

The yearningly hopeful notes of their ode to this country rang out to huge cheers as “England” grew and grew in energy and life before culminating in the stalling bittersweet outro capped by Matt’s desperate longing to push the night away. The art of raising and lowering the mood and tempo seemed to be second nature to them as another swaying rhythm on the toms signals the upbeat sound of “Day I Die”, the opening arrogant lines recalling “All the Wine”, before the end of the chorus brings with it that exuberant and wackily happy guitar riff to which we gleefully (stupidly) sang along with.
One of the biggest cheers of the night is reserved for a Boxer classic as the opening piano lines of “Fake Empire” are drowned out but then the noise is returned in kind when the horn section work their magic with aplomb to an overwhelmed audience thunderously applauding the performance as the band wander off for a short break.

I ecstatically ramble on about how many and which potential songs they could play for the encore before they throw my erratically yet thoughtful propositions out of the window with another new song in “Born to Beg” with its gentle electronic hum coupled with piano building into that limbo state of catharsis that they’ve perfect on Sleep Well Beast. They then brought out the acoustic guitar for an oldie and fan favourite “Slow Show” before delving even deeper into their back catalogue for their only pre-Boxer song and live show staple from 2005’s Alligator: “Mr November”. There was a wonderful irony during the song’s quieter bridge in hearing Matt singing of being carried in the arms of cheerleaders as I saw one lucky soul crowdsurfing over the barrier into the waiting arms of the security personnel, before Matt exploded at every corner of the stage, as every repetitive and louder chiasmic cry brought his yearning and hopeful words closer to reality:

I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November,
I’m Mr. November, I won’t fuck us over

Lullabies and gnarly guitar solos, soft piano ballads, lead singer chucking glasses to the balcony, soft deep singing and throat-wrenching scream, we’ve been pulled every which wonderful way.
They had time for one last song and amongst a wealth of options opted for “Terrible Love” as its ragged opening guitar rang out and echoed in the lovely, expectant and satisfied air of the Apollo.  The song lingers through its first verses and chorus until the urgent guitar riff starts the slow crescendo, followed shortly by Matt’s baring admission to needing help to sleep is joined by the rush the quickening hi-hat hits that add to the nervous anxiousness. There is a lull as Matt sings about trying not to break, playing with our heartstrings and toying with our emotional lilt, before the song enters its final climactic pull leaving us with us drenched and soaked and bathed in the last of Matt’s words and sweet aftermath of the storm we’ve just weathered, a cleansing and cathartic storm of emotions.

It takes an ocean not to break

 

(O2 Apollo, 22nd of September 2017, Manchester, U.K.)

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Snarky Puppy

You’d be forgiven for wondering who the bandleader was when 9 regular looking chaps walked onstage at the O2 Apollo last Thursday. Only 3 saxophonists, 2 drummers, 2 keyboardists, a bassist, and a guitarist – without counting the number of instruments each of them switched between… I had to ask which one the phenomenally-named Michael League was to my mate who indicated the bassist as he opened the set off with the twirling bassline to “GØ”.

I was soon extremely glad I’d ditched the comfy looking balcony seats I’d had planned on sitting on to stand on the floor with my friends. “I’ll just peacefully enjoy and admire the professionalism and skilful, pinpoint execution on show from my elevated height” I had naively thought upon buying the tickets. Although possible and no doubt thoroughly enjoyable, I’d have been a fool and missed out on the intrinsic hip-shaking, finger-clicking urge that comes with the propagation of their brand of modern jazz.

As the title implies, “GØ” got the ball rolling as both the audience and band members eased and felt their way into it, until saxophonist Chris Bullock took it upon himself for the first solo and from then on, the tone was set. From sax to minimoog to guitar, the solos never stopped, each and every one to huge acclaim from the buoyant crowd, with the songs swaying one way and the other under the calm leadership of Michael League, who seemed content to take a back seat to proceedings, leaving the spotlight to the other members and their instruments as they swirled in and out of the songs.
That did lead to every small moment of magic from Michael’s bass being greeted with an even bigger roar of approval.

They followed the opener with two further songs from their latest effort, 2016’s Australian-pronounced Culcha Vulcha, starting off with setlist oddity – if such a band can be considered to have “oddities” in their catalogue – “Beep Box”, a slow and quiet jam morphing into slow but bouncy when the first synth line suddenly ghosts in out of nowhere and the bass bounds around with its descending line, all of it topped off with a flugelhorn (“a what?” I know..) solo outro. A quite surreal and otherwordly tune that only further showcased their eclecticism, if any doubts still lingered…
And then it was back to familiar territory and regular groovy business with “Grown Folks” with snazzy bass and guitar riffs to uphold another uncannily familiar horn riff.

For some reason, Michael felt the need to calm things down a notch for a moment by switching to some older songs that guitarist Chris McQueen got going with some beautiful arpeggios until the trumpets eased themselves in effortlessly to the tune. And when the conga came in, the “Flood” was well and truly on its way, with Bob Reynolds throwing out a surging tenor solo culminating in a booming cascade of tight drumrolls over a backdrop of looping piano and shimmering horns. If only for their length and diversity I’ll spare you the details and shan’t go into every solo that was performed but by the end, it was safe to say “Flood” hadn’t calmed things down even a smidgeon.

“Tarova” kept things going with a percussive intro grooving into a sexy late-night sounding soundtrack to some parallel bygone era of an intense and modern roaring twenties, complete with a mean ole dirty tenor solo by Bullock. A velvety “Gemini” then began with a soft but pounding bassline intro coupled with easy and effortless guitar and piano, calming things down to a serene calmness. A few backing vocals kept the mood flowing as the song bubbled its way along with the silky backdrop a welcome change in mood as Minimoog and Rhodes solos acted as the calm before the storm that was to come.

That storm was “Tio Macaco”.
Percussionist Marcelo Woloski started jamming hard on a pandeiro (“a what?”): how such a small-looking instrument can be made to sound so strong and powerful I’ll never know but Marcelo worked it like a charm during the intro (and afterwards!) until the horns kicked in, sounding once more like a song you’ve always known but never actually heard before. More wonderful solos ensued from the ever-reliable horn section and other instrumentalists but the highlight came towards the end with a double percussion solo-cum-battle between both drummers.

If I was already fixated on drummer Larnell Lewis before this – we had trouble deciding who our favourites were (it’s not a competition though is it?) – it did nothing to lessen my admiration of him or both of them as they swung one way or the other mimicking the other’s drumrolls, calling and responding or just ripping it up in tandem. It was a fantastic end to a great tune and a treat to watch them sweating it out!

Michael League got “Big Ugly” started with his rolling bass line and it settled into the now-familiar pattern of building a head of steam and then slowing things down before the big climaxing crescendo when the synth kicks in first, then the horns and finally Chris McQueen, letting it rip for one of the most euphoric and majestic solos of the night. I had a new favourite.

And then they unleashed the “hits” – if you can call them such from a band like Snarky Puppy – or fan-favourites from their “breakthrough” album We Like it Here starting with “Lingus”, stretching to 14 minutes and feeling fuelled on adrenaline and sweaty good vibes. The song incited the first handclaps to the song’s undeniably uplifting and catchy melodic vibes before Michael slowed it all down to introduce the band to unanimous applause – special cheers reserved for drummer Larnell Lewis and respected England-based keyboardist Bill Laurance who fronts his own similar iteration of the band with frontman Michael League. Having had the temerity to ask for some more Bill, we were duly treated to an insane and sublime prolonged solo from him as the song rose and crescendoed – or descended? – into madness  with the percussion following suit and providing manic backbone to it all . As “Lingus” resumed its “regular” course, Bill switched to the Rhodes piano for the outro, for some ethereal and intangible but truly funky vibes as the song kept climaxing to its bittersweet end.

Coming across as a genuine Michael League popped back onstage alone for the encore to give a humble little speech about the importance of supporting live acts by encouraging to stay open minded support for smaller bands by buying their music and going to watch them perform instead of streaming their music which he bemoaned doesn’t cater to these smaller. “There’s a big difference between listening to music and supporting music”.

And then the first clear guitar notes of “Shofukan” rang out for their closing song. The Oriental-sounding horns quickly came into the fray, laying themselves over with their distinctive Eastern (yet Snarky Puppyish) sound. Justin Stanton treats us to a subtle and restrained solo, at times threatening to burst out but keeping it beautifully controlled. And come the song’s closing horn leitmotif, the last two minutes – and even when they’d left – of the song were heartily sung by the five thousand or so ardent fans in the venue, giving the audience the feeling of having been able to participate in the complex and jazzy Snarky Puppy recipe for good times.

(O2 Apollo, 5th of May 2017, Manchester, U.K.)