This shouldn’t necessarily be an earthquake story. It should be a music review, of a band and how they played, the songs they sang in whichever order, and how happy they made everyone that heard them.
But it is set in Japan in 2011, so of course there’s an earthquake.
The National were meant to play in Tokyo for the first time on 17 March this year. I wasn’t even supposed to be going, having been unable to get the night off work (here we finish late and gigs start early). I was trying to be stoic about the disappointment of missing something that I had been keen to see since spying the advert in December. There would be other chances, I reasoned, they weren’t really my favourite band, there was only one of their songs that I adored.
Then the plates conspired, the waters rushed in and everything changed, for some of us more than others. People left Japan, perhaps never to return, handing over tickets to those who stayed for a gig we weren’t sure would ever take place. Biding my time, I bought a couple of albums worth of songs and discovered much more to love. So much so that I chafed like a kid forced to wait for Christmas when the new date was finally announced. November? But that’s miiiiiiiiiiiles away!
Until suddenly it isn’t. You are packed into a venue so intimate the band could be playing just for you, so close to your neighbours it is like a Yamanote line train. The band walk onstage to Dylan’s ‘The Man in Me’ and it as well as the Big Lebowski – your second favourite Coen brothers film – give you a big grin. So much anticipation. So long to wait. Could anything live up to the hype?
Well, of course.
Listening to them on record does display traces of humour, but you might be unprepared for how funny The National are. They are tough on themselves – Matt Berninger accuses himself of messing up two songs, Aaron Dessner promises that the next time they play in Tokyo they will have better jokes – but they are playful, at ease with each other and yes, funny guys. Still, they are not here for the stand-up, unlike the angels of ‘England’ never needing to be desperate to entertain.
There is a gentle start from the gorgeous ‘Runaway’, before the ‘kind of like a pop song’ ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ and then it is back to third album Alligator for ‘Secret Meeting’. Perhaps it is the louder moments from latest ‘High Violet’ that get the crowd jumping, either ‘Ghost’ or ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, but there is beauty in the quieter moments too. And almost a tear during ‘Abel’, for the friends that should have been here to see this but are now so far away.
The band mention it too, speaking simply of the horrible events that kept them away and their feelings about them. Also mentioning that now they have been – and almost managed to get to grips with the Metro – they will be back. It gets loud cheers from the crowd, as of course it would, but they are genuine ones. Remembering how Japan felt as people left or postponed visits and how happy we are to see visitors…
Especially ones who bring songs like ‘Terrible Love’ for us to leap around to, hands in the air and yelling the words, the atmosphere perhaps so infectious that Berninger heads into the crowd to sing it from the back, mike lead borne aloft courtesy of some heroics from the roadies as he goes, surrounded by an array of smartphones and dazed expressions. Did he really do that?
All too soon we reach the end, an acoustic ‘Vanderlyle Cry Baby Geeks’, which everyone joins in with, as instructed – ‘if you know the words or even if you don’t’.
It is a lovely moment, still I can’t be the only one getting chills from all these voices from Japan and elsewhere singing the line ‘the waters are rising’. Those dark waters and their after-effects brought so much pain still to be healed that an eight-month delay to hearing a band doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Even so, I am glad they finally made it and hope it won’t be that long until the next time.
Photos by Kate Borland