Live Music + Gig Reviews

The National @ Royal Festival Hall, London

10 August 2009

It’s the silence that you notice first. While the cavernous and ever-so-slightly-austere Royal Festival Hall’s traditional clientele isn’t your typical sticky floored 02 Academy regulars, it’s still disconcerting to go to a concert where nobody talks or even moves during the headline act’s first eight songs.

But such is the esteem that Brooklynites The National are held in by this sold-out crowd that it takes a lone voice, shouted from somewhere in the stalls, to break the spell and remind people that this is, you know, a concert and stuff. “Tell everyone to stand up!” he cries. The audience obey, to a man. And then the fun really starts.

Taking time out from recording their fifth album and organizing the latest Red Hot charity compilation to treat devotees to a surprise jaunt around Europe, The National are a band that really inspire devotion. Beloved for their fearsome live shows, oblique and literate lyrics and their intricate songwriting, aided from time-to-time by Sufjan Stevens and St Vincent, that this show sold out in three minutes flat even without a new record in shops is a good indication of how theirs is a star in the ascendancy.

Opening with two of the quietest songs of the evening, new track, Runaway and traditional curtain raiser Start A War, lead singer Matt Berninger is a picture barely-concealed tension, hunched over the microphone delivery his famous baritone growl as the songs reach almost unbearable feedback-drenched crescendos. A divisive singer, Beringer’s voice can put off newcomers to the band’s recorded output, but here his delivery of lines like “You were always weird/ But I never had to hold you by the edges like I do now” is perfect – heartfelt, bruised and incredibly layered.

And then, as one wag shouts, the hits. A salvo of the band’s best brooding rockers, Mistaken For Strangers and the stalker-hymn Brainy are followed by one of the night’s highlights – well-loved Alligator opener Secret Meeting. Here Berninger begins to cut loose, and with the exception of virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Padme Newsome the rest of the band step back and allow him enough room to prowl the stage, like a lanky bull in a tiny china shop, butting speaker stacks and overturning ice buckets. The band effortlessly achieve light and shade; for every full-blown stand up screamer like Abel, there’s the poppy All the Wine or piano-led waltz Fake Empire, a disarmingly simple ballad that raises every hair on the back of the neck as two trumpeters give a glorious fanfare.

By now, the audience have been pushed back into their seats by the sheer force of nature playing out in front of them. It’s only after Baby We’ll Be Fine’s jaw dropping final coda, as Beringer screams “I’m so sorry for everything” as the band get progressively more deafening, that the crowd decide to take to their feet. The respectful silence between songs is gone – people nervously heckle, sing along and, on the penultimate track Mr November, as Berninger dives into the crowd and struggles up the gangway, they even plant full frontal snogs on the front man.

Encouraging, the three new songs premiered tonight don’t sound out of place alongside the familiar tracks. While opener Runaway feels like no great stride forward from the band, later songs Vanderlylle and Ohio promise a tighter, more populist approach. This should be no bad thing, if Vanderlylle’s swooning “Cry, baby, cry” chorus is anything to go by – the band expertly mix mid-’70s American soft rock stylings with full throated declarations from Berninger that he will “explain everything to the Geese” – a nice nod to underrated Alligator track The Geese Of Beverley Road.

The band depart to a standing ovation – as loud and prolonged as the reception to their first few songs was dumbstruck and silent. There aren’t many bands that can pull off that trick.

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