I make no secret of the fact that I think The National are the best thing to happen to music since the invention of the guitar, to paraphrase Rob Gretton’s character in control “I hold my hands up, I am a believer in The National Fuckin’ Hallelujah”
I was a late comer to the band, like most of the world, I first stumbled across this bunch around the release of third full-length album “Alligator”. Songs like Mr November and All The Wine were a revelation. A stunning mix of musical talent, raw urgent energy and poetic lyricism; it was a heady musical cocktail. I went back to the admittedly not great self titled debut, and the much underrated Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers and again found much to love. The songs seeped into your brain and became instant anthems, songs that defined a particular wonderful period in my life.
With the release of stunning fourth album “Boxer” the band progressed still further. Smoothing out the edges of their earlier efforts to create a slicker, more claustrophobic and dense album. Full of the problems not of a teenager trying to establish themselves in the world, but of someone who’s been there done that and still never discovered quite where they belong. Singer Matt Berninger’s words became more potent, darker and more engrossed in the realities of life. The interwoven guitars, piano and bass produced a hazy atmosphere, punctuated by drummer Bryan Devendorf’s creative, rhythmic drumming. Had anyone made an album like it before? Has anyone ever made one as good since?
We find them now, two albums later, “High Violet” and “Trouble Will Find Me” have turned The National from an underground sensation to a band capable of selling out Alexandra Palace on successive nights. They may well come back and tour even bigger venues, headline festivals perhaps? Far from selling out and making middle of the road rock records they’re still creating stunning albums, Matt might not scream the lyrics out quite like he used to but he and his compatriots are no sell outs. They’re the real deal a band you’re happy to see blossom and reach a wider audience, always knowing what they were then, is still what they are now. There are few bands you can say that about.
It’s difficult for me therefore to critique this band, seeing them live is as close as I get to a moment of worship. I wont pretend this review is fair or balanced. I wont even attempt to tell you whether it was good. I’ll run you through what I saw and just simply implore you if you haven’t previously to take this band into your life.
The DJ fades out a track as the excitement in the crowd builds, he then puts another track on and their’s an audible groan. The more observant in the crowd would note it’s Sharon Van Etten, a track lifted from an album produced by Aaron Dessner guitarist in tonight’s main event (yes i’m incredibly smug that I noted this), as the track fades out, the gigantic crackling screen at the back of the stage kicks into life to the sounds of a Kurt Vile track. The lights dip and the visual change to a shot of The National walking towards the stage. As entrances go it’s a stunning one. The crowd erupt as the band take the stage. The Dessner twins flanking frontman Matt Berninger front of stage, with the rhythm section and a two man brass section behind. For such a big stage the five “proper’ members of The National are surprisingly tightly fit, perhaps a throwback to their days on much smaller stages, it’s a good move lending a sense of intimacy to a gig of this size is always a tricky one but they don’t struggle with the occasion.
They open with “Don’t Swallow The Cap” one of their latest albums faster numbers. Indeed the early part of the set punctuated with a number of tracks from “Trouble Will Find Me” shows you just how different this latest is album to it’s predecessors; it’s slower, but somehow not in an anthemic way. Tracks like “This Is The Last Time” and “I Need My Girl” are slow in tempo, but the intricate melodies and stunning instrumentation make them some of the best tracks on Trouble Will Find Me; indeed it’s a few of the quicker numbers that slightly miss the mark in the opening half of the set. Berninger stalks the stage looking increasingly angry, it’s a strange approach he takes, he swigs from his wine constantly and seems to berate drummer Bryan Devendorf, almost imploring him to play faster, harder, better. If Berninger is unhappy with the band he’s about the only person in the whole place. They punctuate the new tracks with some older numbers “Mistaken for Strangers” remains fresh and brilliant, and during “Bloodbuzz Ohio” the stage is permeated with crimson light and crowd erupt in response to the wonderful guitar interplay that it contains.
The show throughout is a visual treat. The gigantic LED screen interspersing simple patterns, with live footage, and pre-recorded clips beautifully. All accompanied by one of the biggest lighting rigs i’ve ever seen. At one point a blast of white light accompanies a simple close up shot of Aaron Dessner playing the piano, but it’s so perfectly matched to the music it becomes a beautifully judged moment.
Midway through the main set, Berninger leaves the stage as the band loop the intro to “Squalor Victoria” with the sense of anger that permeated his performance throughout the opening numbers you half wonder if he’s coming back or not. Reemerge he of course does, and if he seemed grumpy and distant before he’s a changed man. Angry of course (when isn’t he?) but lively and energetic. He screams his way through “Squalor Victoria” with a new found sense of urgency, seemingly now not raging against his bandmates but to revelling in the brilliant noise they’re creating behind him. For the rest of the set we’re treated to a selection of the band’s greatest hits, covering moments from all of their albums. We get the beautiful “Conversation 16” & “England” from High Violet, a stunning version of personal favourite “Slow Show” and “Apartment Story” from Boxer (they could play about any track they like off Boxer and it would be a highlight), we even get a surprise airing for Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers angsty, shouty, wonder “Available”. They close with the brilliant double act of the gorgeously sad “About Today” and piano led “Fake Empire”, it’s a wonderfully paced slow build of a set. Is there a better band at effortlessly changing gears? Even within individual tracks they seem to go from slow ballad to out and out rock song with such ease, it’s the ebb and flow of these songs that’s the key to their beauty.
We get an encore, of course! “Humiliation” is a surprise stand-out in the new material, lyrically it’s stunning! “Mr November” sees Matt take a traditional stroll into the crowd (credit to the microphone lead manufacturers and stage technicians for making this possible) it’s a brilliant moment as he looses himself into the masses. As he returns to the stage he launches a bottle of red-wine into the air, and receives a fabulously dirty look from Aaron, it’s hard to tell if he’s upset because it almost hit him or it got wine on his pedals; I’m not sure which would upset him more. “Terrible Love” is played with such ferocity and energy it’s a wonderful contrast to the finale. It’s a well rehearsed thing but as the band unplug and swap electric guitars for acoustics to perform a mass singalong of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” it’s still a truly beautiful way to end a set. The fact people are still breaking into song the whole way home is a testament to just how good it was!
As I say I am a convert, a fan who cannot look on this band with out rose-tinted spectacles, but one things for sure I left incredibly happy, proud and amazed by what I saw, and when you’re as cynical, tired and aching as I am after a week of live music that’s quite something