Flying through Europe on a festival and one-off show
whirlwind, as much as a band defined by the languishing,
exquisitely ponderous nature of their observations and
internal emotional conflicts can fly, The National
float to earth tonight for the grandest UK date
of their career thus far. What is immediately surprising
is how at one they seem on the Royal Festival Hall stage
with the extravagantly angular architecture of the concert
hall towering tall above them, yet they somehow remain
immune from its scale, protected by the mass of darkness
that envelops them. "This is how we're most comfortable,"
quips Matt Beringer dryly between songs with the lights
down, "just let us relax".
Last time we saw them, rounding off the 'Boxer' tour
at last year's festivals, they seemed built up but worn
down; the natural urge to fill the boots that their
new-found success had thrust them into somewhat smothered
the fragility of the songs. Don't get us wrong, it didn't
break them and it was an undoubtedly muscular showing,
but perhaps they should have trusted their original
instincts more. Matt's unusual, coy vocals too had hurriedly
evolved into something more blunt and unwieldy, whether
through nerves or a misguided desire to embolden what
had previously ambled along artfully guarded. But if
that band, back then, had mislaid the finer details
of their base identity then the version we see before
us tonight has rediscovered itself and even dug that
They're a bigger band, in figurative terms of scale
and confidence (aside from the popularity that saw them
fill this massive space with attentive, passionate souls),
but that now feels balanced satisfyingly with the minutiae
from which they're hewn. There are kinks in their bold
overcoat, certainly; the moments when Bryan Devendorf's
muscular rhythmical spasms don't quite lock in sync
with the Dessner brothers' twinkling melodic precision
and Matt's vocal briefly loses shape. But those small
moments of vulnerability in their performance are mere
flickers and only heighten the overall impact. They've
also further mastered the art of crescendo to great
effect, seen in frenzied outros for 'Brainy' and 'Squalor
Victoria'. And the rich composition of the three new
songs previewed tonight, one ending with Matt down in
the stalls, microphone extended above his head, crowing
"I'll explain everything to the geeks!", suggests their
vintage could yet be ahead of them.
Verdict: The grand National. National treasures.
The National's anthems. Etc.
Best In Show: A vitriolic 'Mr November' and Matt's
extended rampage through the audience, screeching the
chorus's coda in people's faces at point blank range
(unheard of behaviour for the timid frontman of old)
and being embraced in return.
Download: 'Slow Show' and 'Green Gloves', both
deeply tender and warmly unfurled.
Playlist companions: Wilco, REM, Interpol, Pixies
London Royal Festival Hall shots
Photos & Report ~ James Berry for Crud Magazine