The last time The National played a London show, they pulled the curtain down on the world tour for sixth album ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ at the capital’s O2 Arena. Quite amazingly, for a band without a number one to their name (until this month, that is), it found them with no bigger indoor venue to play in the country.
For the tour behind new album ‘Sleep Well Beast’, the band have decided to take up residencies at theatres around the UK and indeed the world, playing multiple nights at smaller venues. They’re allowing the band to dig into the lesser-shared corners of their discography.
On the first night of four at Hammersmith Apollo, the setlist leant heavily on 2005 breakout ‘Alligator’. Tonight, 2013’s ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ dominates. The band play for a solid two hours, and there’s still more than a few noticeable omissions in the setlist; their back catalogue has crept up to being one of the strongest in the game.
The National are a band of two sides tonight, and it’s a duality showcased as early as the set’s first two songs. ‘Sleep Well Beast’ opener ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ opens the set, a downbeat, piano-led soother flecked with reverb, before ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’ sees Aaron Dessner’s spiky guitar fire into life, with Bryan Devendorf loosening his muscles behind the drum kit and the set’s first roaring singalong unfurling.
‘Sleep Well Beast’ cuts ‘Walk It Back’ and ‘Guilty Party’ then showcase the band’s contemplative side and the introducion of the sparkling synthetic drums peppered across their newest record, before ‘Sea Of Love’ and ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ take things back, a pair of cuts that possess a propulsive energy. The latter of the two has become the most unlikely of anthems, and a deafening, impassioned singalong follows.
‘Mistaken For Strangers’ and ‘Graceless’ are welcome mid-set inclusions, and while ‘Slow Show’, ‘Apartment Story’, ‘Abel’ and more are left out tonight, The National are at a point where they can dip into any corner of their discography and pull out a gem that’s received like a classic.
While undeniably an extremely tight live band, some of The National’s strongest connections come from when it feels like everything’s about to fall apart at the seams. Some urgent drying of the drum kit is needed when one of Matt’s many chucks of a half-empty drink into the crowd goes awry and proceeds to land straight on a cymbal, the frontman wanders all over through the set - into the crowd, off to the side, out of view altogether - and when the title track from ‘Sleep Well Beast’ folds out into a barely contained looser than loose outro, the intensity and anxiety of the album is truly reflected on stage for the first time.
The inclusion of ‘England’ is as suitable and poignant as ever, while ‘Day I Die’ is the most impressive of the ‘Sleep Well Beast’ cuts aired, carrying an untameable energy. With this album in particular, the Dessner twins have become a pair of formidable axe-wielders, beefing up even the band’s quieter tracks with intertwining solos, and it comes to a head when they converge in the middle of the stage to raise their guitars up together at the climax of ‘Fake Empire’. A gimmick from a notoriously un-gimmicky band, maybe, but between the pair’s emergence as fierce guitarists and Berninger’s frequent excursions into the front rows, the entertainment value of a National show now goes far beyond the songs, not to mention the gorgeous stage production and pre-show camera which tracks the band’s journey from dressing room to stage.
A gorgeous, poetic ‘About Today’ is received by whoops and ‘aaaah!’s to close the main set, before the band return to run through Talking Heads track ‘Heaven’, wild smiles all around, before a slightly mistimed inclusion of ‘Sleep Well Beast’ slowie ‘Born To Beg’ rolls into the band’s now-customary towering closer ‘Terrible Love’. Murky and anthemic in equal measure, it’s still slightly baffling how these songs of introspection have been able to command such big stages, but The National have adapted to the task, and now look capable of anything. Casting off arenas to recapture some of the intimacy so many find in their songs, The National’s return to the capital tonight is stunning, and predictably, is done firmly on their own terms.
Photos: Lindsay Melbourne / DIY