Review: Bastille at the Anthem

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Of their latest album, Bastille frontman Dan Smith said, “We wanted to make something that felt honest, [that speaks to] escapism and trying to exist in 2019 and stay sane. Be aware, be engaged, but it’s important to have nights off.” And it’s true, the band’s latest effort is drenched in hedonistic escapism, but with a self-awareness that such behavior is ultimately unsustainable.

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Yet the show that Bastille put on last night at the Anthem provided the audience with a brief escape from the Washington, D.C. of it all. Split into three distinct acts, the show was designed to take us to an existential place. Opening song “Quarter Past Midnight” represented first act Still Avoiding Tomorrow quite well: human despair and doubt about the fate of the world as we know it, but make it catchy. 

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I was impressed by the set and videography, which were detailed and intentional. The audience had a lot to unpack. For example, the video content during “Things We Lost in the Fire” — stills of city life superimposed over clips of vast blue skies, bees, an ocean full of fish — the former threatening to overtake the latter completely. Sometimes, though, the symbolism veered into the literal. The band performed “The Waves” with a mesmerizing wide shot of the ocean behind them. Perhaps the most powerful visual moment in this first act came during “Bad Decisions,” when an array of human vices were juxtaposed against protest signs as if to say in spite of all these bad decisions being carried out on a global scale, there’s still a chance to make things better. 

The band closed out the first act with a rendition of “Flaws” that found Dan among the crowd. The mood drastically shifted as act two, Those Nights, began. With a camo-print hoodie over his eyes, Dan sang the track, on a spinning couch as the color slowly leaked out of the background videos. Again, the visuals here were provocative, the shift to monochrome capturing the weight of it all without a word.

Before playing “Doom Days,” Dan took a moment to acknowledge that this part of the set was “the worst it’s gonna get.” Though I will never forgive the writers for rhyming “Kool Aid” with “doom days,” the track concisely captures all that there is to get away from as the world falls apart around us. At this point, I started thinking of the poetic concept duende — art’s capacity to take its audience down the metaphorical ladder into despair. As a rule, duende is executed effectively when there’s an escape route, or the means to bring us back up the ladder again. After all, it is human nature to hold suffering and joy all at once, all at the same time. 

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It takes some serious musicianship to keep a crowd afloat during a show weighted down by this much existential dread. While Smith led the way, jumping off of platforms and performing with so much energy that by the end of the show, he’d nearly lost his voice, the band’s contributions were just as powerful and helped shape the set.

Color started to slowly creep back into the set during “Blame,” hinting at an ascent. The final act, titled The Morning Doesn’t Reach Us, began with a dreamy guitar intro. Structured around hits that didn’t quite fit into the other two sections, including “Doom Days” standout track “Another Place,”and “Good Grief,” the act brought some much-needed momentum despite its less-than-optimistic name.

There’s arguably no better place to end a Bastille concert than singing along to “Pompeii,” and that’s exactly what we did. Even though we all left quite literally asking “how am I gonna be an optimist about this?” the track allowed the audience to carry a moment of joy — no matter how brief — with us out of the venue.

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