About a Saturday: The National and James Blake at Sziget 2019 (Best Concerts Part Two)

It was a perfect night, so I’ll start by complaining. The National had been delighting me with special posters for all their previous shows during this tour (evidence to be admired on their Instagram), they didn’t have one for Sziget. James Blake had been playing Assume Form, my favourite track from his latest album, as the opener of most of his recent concerts, he didn’t play it on Sziget. I was also more tired than on previous days, and all days afterwards, something I’ve noticed during past festivals too: the days when my favourite acts play are more emotionally demanding, almost draining sometimes. Everything has to go according to plan; all stars must align. On this night, they must have aligned, but not in the way I expected them to.

I arrived for The National ditching a rather excellent coma_cose gig at the Europe Stage, and I felt guilty for it. I generally do when I leave a smaller act to head off and watch a bigger one, because with a meagre crowd, at the Europe Stage each person in the audience matters in a way you don’t in the sea of bodies carried along by a headliner. But I had to, plus coma_cose did have a sizable Italian fan base flocking to their show, especially after Macklemore finished playing on the main stage. Speaking of Macklemore, I am still fairly baffled, yet thankful, that the organizers didn’t pick him for the night’s headline slot since he is definitely more festival friendly-I am a bit scared by the number of people judging shows by their ‘party’ value these days. He is better known by the local crowd as well, whose participation was very much counted on, given that it was the Saturday, which should be attractive to locals who want to make the most of a day ticket.

Yet The National were headlining and the crowd was breezy, reminding me of the romantic, long gone days when you could watch the main act in relative comfort, but I also had a small pang of apprehension that the concert might fall flat in these large spaces among us. Then Matt Berninger walked on stage, and he looked as he always does, namely a distracted humanities professor who entered the wrong auditorium and tries to make the best of it. I of course know what this distracted professor can do, but it still took me by surprise just how quickly he got hold of the crowd. Two songs in, and this is one hell of a party, albeit a strange one, celebrating our least comfortable feelings, our existential angst and fear of dying. A funeral party for those we have lost (a song is dedicated to Silver Jews’ David Berman, who had just taken his own life) but also one filled with a desperate hope for those who decide to struggle on, a terrible love, and I’m walking with spiders, croons Berninger, and I’m the happiest emotional wreck ever to have lived when I whisper me too, Matt, me too.

There are seventeen songs, the backbone built along their most recent album, I Am Easy to Find, of which incidentally the don’t play the title song either. But they do play Light Years, which I’ve already branded as my favourite song of the year, come what may, and when Berninger’s baritone quietens to almost a whisper, it feels like both the closest and farthest you’ve ever been to others, these spaces among us, they’re not there at all, but we’re still light years away. Berninger’s presence is all encompassing, he runs around the stage, dives into the crowd, lies down, still singing, to sign the record a fan has been religiously holding all day in the front row. In the background, the Dessner brothers, looking a bit worse for wear after a long tour and in the evening’s stifling heat, still manage to conjure the National’s unmistakable sound, a combination of melancholy fragility and bursts of rebellious, almost exasperated noise. Having gotten their most mainstream hit sounding song, Bloodbuzz Ohio, out of the way early on, the close the set with the oldest song of the night, About Today, again and forever toying with the idea of closeness and distance, absence and presence, and whether, or how, they can coexist.

There’s a special pleasure in lingering on around the main stage after a great show, as if hit by a freight train of happiness, and normally I avoid further musical immersion, so as to keep the experience sealed from unexpected influences. However, the Sziget programmer had other plans for me, and as I was getting closer to the A38 stage I realized how ridiculously tired I was and worried this might blight James Blake’s performance. But I was wrong. A friend once called Blake’s work party music for people with anxiety, I will now add that it’s party music for tired people with anxiety. Since he spends the entire show behind his keyboard and generally looks somewhat irked and conflicted by the need of his presence in such circumstances, I didn’t feel bad about scuttling to the back of the tent and listening to more than half of the set while leaning against a pillar.

This is where Blake’s music elicited deep thoughts, such as how his sound, similarly to that of The National, to make a nice link between the day’s highlights, draws on very many obvious influences but remains consistently singular. He collaborates with many artists, yet it’s always their sound that bleeds into his, and not the other way around. Manifold sources of inspiration hold the risk of creating baroque and disjointed results, but with Blake it’s always the opposite, the complicated suddenly becomes simple, essential. His generally shy smile turns almost mischievous when he explains that a tantalizingly danceable interlude is played by the band on stage, and not a computer. It’s a tour de force, look, I can do that, if I want to, I am an electronic music producer after all, I just choose not to most of the time.

I do miss Assume Form though, and still consider it the best concert opener one can imagine, but at least we’re treated to the thoroughly Blake-ified cover of Feist’s Limit to Your Love and the hauntingly beautiful Retrograde, all of it in a state of flow- it’s not a particularly long show,  the time slot does not allow it, and there are no special frills to it, but there is a sense of completeness, of this is exactly how things should be right now. It’s everything my tired soul and limbs needed at the end of a day perfect in all the ways I did not expect it to be.

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