Photo credit: Crazybobbles
Sat to our right is a smartly dressed, well-to-do 50-something couple who look as though they might be more at home at the kind of Royal Festival Hall performance when the Queen would be occupying the regal box. However we’re proven wrong as conversation quickly turns to the band of the evening, who they adored last year at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and whose music provides the soundtrack to “our National evenings,” says the wife. “We know all the words, we sit for a night and listen to all their albums – it’s wonderful.” This is what I love about The National – that they inspire these kinds of quietly devoted fans of all ages who never tire of trying to untangle the inexhaustible mysteries of their lyrics (or who are quite happy to marvel at their fathoms-deep vagueness) and work out how their music gets you right there. This isn’t going to be any kind of objective review – The National are one of those scant bands for which I have next to no capacity for criticism and whose lyrics manage to retrospectively narrate and explain parts of my life better than I ever could. At least, that’s what I think they’re on about.
Following a perfect length set from Broken Records (who alongside The Leisure Society and The Twilight Sad form some kind of holy musical triumvirate and divine light which shows that the future of British music is in safe hands), they appear, supplemented by two trombone players and a keys/synths/violin virtuoso. The brothers Dessner look tiny in real life, especially against “the basement of my brain” black void of the stage. “This is a new song,” says Matt Berninger by way of introduction, and an instant hush spreads across the rows. I think it’s ‘Runaway’, as a bootleg from their 23/05 Boston show would have it. Matt’s at perhaps his calmest of the whole evening, crooning “I won’t be no runaway” as the brass glows in gradually, like the warm hand of a lover smoothing across your back.
They play a couple of other new songs that they don’t offer the names of before ‘Blood Buzz Ohio’ in the encore, which has a similar feel to ‘Daughters of the Soho Riots’. A few songs in and the military clatter of Bryan Devendorf’s drums in ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ feels like an artillery of arrows fired to prick the surface of our eyes – but despite the sobriety of the music and RFH’s grandeur, Matt in particular brims with exuberance – when not singing, he runs around the stage screaming what looks like “MAKE IT LOUDER!” at his band mates, then spars with the more riotous elements of the crowd, one of whom persists in yelling “tell everyone to stand up!” and eventually scores a sort of Pyrrhic victory when his voice becomes lost in the throng that gathers before the stage. He pours a glass of white wine and passes it to a chap in the crowd sometime before ‘Squalor Victoria’, which has him climbing amps to roar the titular lyrics at the pleasant folk in the balcony. He rails and stomps, contorted by the throat-ravaging dint of his own scream which stings and terrifies with base carnal anger and reproach, then leaps to the floor and runs up about 25 rows of steps, storming in amongst the seats. It feels like we’re witnessing some kind of ritual exorcism, though at least Matt’s playful demons remain when later on he beats a metal wine bucket on the floor repeatedly, spewing water and ice everywhere. After taking a tentative step, you can almost see the thought that this might end messily get dropkicked from his consideration by a gigantic “fuck it, I’m doing it anyway” – a running leap turns into a magnificent wipeout that ends at Aaron Dessner’s feet and pedals and has him laughing so hard it’s a wonder he keeps playing. But play on they do, into a far calmer encore that ever so slightly betrays the balance of the set. It’s a minor gripe though for a band this devastatingly spectacular. Until the release and touring of their next album in Spring 2010, here’s to National evenings and getting lost in their ever expanding shadows of meaning.