The National, Usher Hall Edinburgh, 21st of September 2017
I am half awake in a fake empire …, I could be anyone/where in the present political climate, in the UK with the neoliberals chasing post Brexit trade deals with former colonies. In the US trading insults, a dotard to a rocket man. Instead I am watching “The National” at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. With the name like “The National” one might expect them to be a political band in some way, though clearly it is not the same as the type of nationalism promoted by Trump, it is probably more akin to the constitutional patriotism suggested by writers like Habermas (see here ), the inclusive sense that looks beyond ethnicity or citizenship to pluralistic values, the nationalism claimed by people in Plaid Cymru and the SNP. Which, given the intellectualism of the band, they have probably read.
While we waited for them to come on, the screens at the back of the stage provided a glimpse backstage, they didn’t appear to be sitting around reading the New Yorker, all was strumming, stretching and guitar picking. At the front, there was no pushing, once the band came on I didn’t feel myself pinned to the barriers at the front, and indeed the only drink that was thrown was from the stage itself. At one point I went to the bar, “IPA please”, “sorry love, sold out”. Only at something as middle class as “The National” could you go to the bar in Scotland and find the only thing left was the Tennent’s Lager.
Getting back to the front was easy, polite and without a drop spilled. If the crowd was polite, the bands carefully constructed sounds, building waves of noise seemed in rude health. As the gig progressed the drummer shed layers, his brother head down sweating the bass. With the Dessner brothers on guitar/piano watching each other cool and knowingly, as the singer become more and more of a dishevelled angry middle aged man. I note the Guardian suggested this new album was their middle aged album , to me, on that evening, it was the older ones like “Mistaken for Strangers” that seemed filled weary melancholy. And anger, the first time I saw them live (not on YouTube) was 2008 at the Green Man. I remember the musicianship, the tightness of movement, but I don’t recall the rasping anger of now.
As he sang the opening lines of “Fake Empire” I was reminded of a poem I had read years ago, called the “Mushroom Gatherers”, all together in the woods, passing, not talking, written in the 1950’s, inspired by the work of Polish poet Mickiewicz, it is often read as a comment on the performance of political process. To me it seemed to speak to the way without care we can sleepwalk through ill times. If you scroll to 13:30 you can listen to a reading of it here. And learn more about Donald Davie here.
Of the songs that seemed most filled with angry sadness it was “Mr November”, with the band thrashing about and Matt foetal on the floor. For me it seemed to capture this strange feeling one has these days – what the fuck is going on!?!. Mr November was Obama, and even though they claim to be not too political, Obama went to their songs time again for a bit of hope.
Now, how are we to feel constitutionally patriotic, soaked in shared values, when our systems have thrown up odd these odd replacements.