The recordings admirably highlight the power that the National have as a live band.
The secret to becoming a great live band is actually pretty simple: repetition. Aside from a few exceptions who appear to be blessed by some higher power with a captivating live show, bands simply get better by playing more often. This is essentially what happened to the National, a band whose catalog isn’t necessarily rife with dynamic live bangers in the traditional sense. Seeing the National live now is experiencing a band reaching their peak through work and relentless touring. That road warrior spirit is the framework around which their new live set Juicy Sonic Magic is set up. Conceived as a tribute to a legend of live recordings, the three-tape set captures the band at a point where their live show finally started to catch up to their studio work in terms of quality.
Recorded during a two-night stand in Berkeley, Juicy Sonic Magic finds the band at the tail end of their year-long tour behind Sleep Well Beast; despite having a new album out, the setlist for both nights is quite varied. As is typical of the National nowadays, they don’t venture any further than 2004’s Cherry Tree highlight “About Today,” which is essentially the starting point for the National as we know them now. Onstage, though, the studied manner in which they perform loosens and relaxes a bit. The musicians are as sharp as ever, but they play with a certain degree of freedom that you don’t often hear from them (or any band) on record. Moreover, Matt Berninger becomes a completely different creature in a live setting. Any audio recording of the National playing live will inevitably not do Berninger’s antics justice, but this does do a reasonably good job at capturing what a presence he can be onstage. Here, he jokes with the crowd, gets mad about current events (his description of Brett Kavanaugh is especially NSFW), and remains irrepressibly charming even as he fucks up on occasion. It’s that occasional sloppiness that injects some life into Juicy Sonic Magic, life that it would not have had the National ended up being the kind of band that just play their songs as they exist on the record.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Juicy Sonic Magic, though, is how it sounds as opposed to what’s being recorded. The show was recorded in part as a tribute to legendary live documentarian/bootlegger Mike Millard, and both the band and producer Erik Flannigan have waxed rhapsodic about Millard’s recordings of the likes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd at their peak in the ‘70s. Juicy Sonic Magic was recorded in such a way as to recreate the sound of Millard’s recordings. Whether or not they capture that magic is up for debate, but the recording is one of the smoothest, warmest live recordings I’ve heard in some time. It places the listener right at the show in a way that most live recordings, even ones that have been filmed, simply can’t. If the ultimate goal of a live album is to capture the live experience for posterity, then Juicy Sonic Magic has more than succeeded in that regard.
Despite the disadvantage of being released in a cumbersome format (the album is only available on cassettes, so blow the dust off your old tape decks), Juicy Sonic Magic is absolutely worth investigating. The collection itself clearly comes from a place of love for live bootleg culture, and the band succeed in creating something more than a mere facsimile of a bootlegged show. More importantly, the recordings admirably highlight the power that the National have as a live band.