Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

The National – Roundhouse, London 26/06/13

28 June 2013, 14:40 | Written by Merle Jobst

Critically acclaimed and indefinably unique even within their genre, the experience at this point of seeing The National live is even more of a big deal than usual; one that feels like somewhat akin, in ‘is this really happening?’ terms, to that ridiculously tumultuous moment at the end of The Railway Children when father and daughter run with arms open down the platform to reunite.

Camden’s Roundhouse feels almost a tailored fit to these stately alt-rockers, as they stand backed by towering screens and encircled by a sold-out audience just small enough for everybody present to feel comfortable in their company.

The world is easily forgotten, watching the band. Tones are thick, – even numbing at times. We’re straight in with ‘I Should Live in Salt’, the anthemic opener from their recent album Trouble Will Find Me, which climaxes with its screaming guitar solo before ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’ rings out to follow it. Both tracks translate fantastically to a live setting. Hearing them live for the first time, drenched in the colours of the venue’s impossibly rich lighting, we feel another hugely acclaimed release to The National’s name being cemented into the way we think of their history.

Vocalist Matt Berninger was always an interesting figure in rock music, but in the flesh one realises how rare a beast he truly is. On a musical level, it’s impressive simply how he controls the urge to leave his infamous baritone octave and shout – something that, when it happens, is a magnificent release, the whole sound suddenly gaining new vigour behind him.

‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, is marvellously controlled despite the momentum of the song and is where the brass section make apparent their presence for the first time, and, as is sometimes one of the biggest treats of a live experience, we’re hearing bits of the band’s instrumentation we’ve never noticed before; be it guitar melodies, layers of brass, piano or simply vocal embellishments. To that point ‘Sea of Love’, a fast-paced favourite from the new record, features in its outro a chorus of vocals performed and hollered back with total abandon; as infectious a thing to witness as the hellish red images on the screens that back the performance of ‘Demons’.

It’s when ‘Afraid of Everyone’ hits though, that the band feel truly emphatic in their delivery and euphoria takes a hold of their audience. Voices screaming the line ‘I don’t have the drugs to sort it out’ along with Berninger ring around the Roundhouse, that magnificent treacle-like riff riding stoically between them.

“I think there’s actually no anger in this song” Berninger jokes as he introduces ‘I Need My Girl’. “Maybe a little bit of self-loathing. That’s healthy though,” he says, as the audience laugh – “you should hate yourself a bit.” One almost can’t believe the depth of his voice until you’re faced with it in real life. The deep, ocean-blue lighting over the subdued, pitter-patter drums and dewdrop guitar helps make it particularly a memorable moment.

Really, we think, as the opening chords of ‘England’ resonate through the crowd and golden rain falls on the screens, this is the perfect time for us to have seen The National. They’ve just gotten over the first wave of the world’s reaction to what’s become their highest-charting album yet, their game is as perfect as it’s ever been, and they’re playing a venue that absolutely couldn’t suit them more – any bigger would have made the evening feel quite different.

The whole experience feels rather like watching the older kids at school play at and talk about things you can’t quite understand, and consequently harbouring a hushed and wondrous respect for them. We delight in seeing Berninger perform his party trick of charging into the now-chaotic audience during the rapturous ‘Mr. November’ from 2005’s Alligator, but as blistering as it is, it pales in comparison to the quivering standstill they bring the venue to during the hyper-emotional finale ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’.

The closing track is performed with an unplugged acoustic guitar – almost inaudible until our ears adjust – horns, and vocals sung largely away from the microphone; the audience’s collective voice louder than his own. It’s simple, surreal, tender, and one of the most memorable live music experiences we’ve witnessed all year.

Photograph by Jason Williamson. See Full Gallery here.

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