Live Review

The National, The Roundhouse, London

The National make people do things other bands don’t, they’re a band for the people, and at last the people are realising this.

As The National finish playing ‘Secret Meeting’, from arguably their best album ‘Alligator’, they reminisce on stage about having played the same song years earlier at the tiny Camden Barfly just a few hundred yards down the road.

How things have changed. No longer your best-kept secret, this ‘last-minute’ 3000-strong Roundhouse show sold out immediately. The new and expensive-looking video display screens are brightly lit and huge behind them and you get the feeling frontman Matt Berninger might be swigging from something a bit classier than Blossom Hill.

They certainly rise to the occasion tonight, delivering an almost faultless performance that shows that they know how good they are. It’s near pitch perfect; a two-hour long journey that mixes their best material with a large chunk of the equally mesmerising new record ‘Trouble Will Find Me’.

Cursory fans have been known to dismiss The National as boring, but tonight – as with every live performance they give – this criticism seems laughable. They are alive, vital and irresistible. Songs swell and grow, creating something different from on record, more dynamic, more primal (especially Matt who prowls the stage, wine bottle in hand, screaming into the microphone). It isn’t as pristine as they are on record, it’s less thought out, more ragged and all the better for it. That’s not to say there aren’t beautiful moments. There are plenty, with Berninger’s irresistible baritone and novelistic lyrics gorgeously backed by the intricate layers of sound that the brothers Dessner and Devendorf - as well as a horn section - create. But there are also moments of visceral noise and walls of sound.

The new songs sound like old friends: ‘I Should Live In Salt’ which opens the show sounds like an instant anthem, ‘Sea Of Love’ is the pounding tidal wave that it promised it was on record, while there’s even someone crowd surfing to the subdued paranoia and odd time signature of ‘Demons’. ‘This Is The Last Time’ is grainy and beautiful, while ‘Pink Rabbits’, with its the desolate horns as Matt’s cracked voice sings ‘I was a television version of a person with a broken heart,’ takes you away to somewhere else.

The mix of the old and new is also fascinating. During ‘Abel’ Matt breaks the mic stand, while ‘Graceless’ matches that song’s urgent intensity. The primitive climax to ‘Squalor Victoria’ with its wall of sound ending is contrasted with the beautiful ‘I Need My Girl’. He muses, ‘I don’t think I hate anyone on this song. Well, maybe just myself, there’s a lot of self-loathing but I think that’s a good thing.’ He pauses to ponder this and tells the crowd; ‘You should all hate yourself.’

It’s this angst that comes through in many of their songs but there’s a humour and wit that lifts it up somewhere else. The ‘High Violet’ trifecta of ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, ‘Afraid Of Everyone’ and ‘Conversation 16’ prove just that. It’s ‘About Today’ though which is the emotional highpoint; painting a heartbreaking story with only a few lines, it’s all beautiful restraint until the crescendo’s wash of sound.

For the encore (or the ‘dramatic pee break,’ as Matt calls it) they begin with the beguiling ‘Heavenfaced’ with its sunrise ending. It’s followed by ‘Humiliation’ which descends in to a guitar freak out and a huge ‘Mr November’. Matt climbs into the crowd screaming the George Bush-baiting chorus and being followed through the crowd by fans.

It ends with the now traditional set closer ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’, unamplified and unadorned, the band leading the audience in a magical moment of communion, the whole crowd singing along together as one. The National make people do things other bands don’t, they’re a band for the people, and at last the people are realising this.

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