I'm a freelance writer who likes writing about cultural things (am a big film buff, bibliophile, and muso, who's obsessed with old films stars , Julie Delpy, Alfred Hitchcock, Coen Brothers, Kat...[more]
Brixton Academy, Monday 29 November 2010
The first band on for this very eagerly anticipated sold out gig were the Portland band Menomena. Now, seeing as it's only The blimmin National you would at least expect the support to be half-way decent. We're not expecting them to be as good, heaven forbid! Suffice to say they were pretty dull; they had their moments but for the most part it was as if they were trying to fuse Mercury Rev-style camp theatrics with post-punk in an over-earnest way, and it didn't really gel. They also seemed to be unable to decide who their frontman was, swapping vocal duties at nearly every opportunity. When they sang in their final song "I'd like to go home", I think quite a few people in the audience wished the same.
It was with great relief then that The National finally made their appearance. As the stately Matt Berninger walked on stage dressed in a black suit to Neil Young's 'On the Beach' (only one of my favourite Young songs) looking as assured and cool as can be, they launched into beautiful heartfelt ballad 'Runaway' off the excellent High Violet (it really is their year this year). Matt sang the vocals with conviction and totally in thrall to the music, with closed eyes, body swaying and legs tapping rhythmically. He gripped and enclosed the mike stand as if his life depended on it; his entrancing Nick Cave-like baritone vocals just as good as they are on record. While the band, augmented by a trumpet and trombone player, created a rich but appropriately delicate sound. Immediately you knew you were in for an extraordinary night.
They also seemed very relaxed on stage, joking and bantering with the crowd and each other, commenting on the weather (Matt: "It's freezing, it's like that film, what's it called? The day the earth got super cold?"), telling us what the song are about. And sharing in-jokes about how Matt likes to go off into an "isolation booth at the side of that stage", prompting Scott Devendorf, the bassist, to say, "Shut up! Nobody thinks you're funny".
The set list consisted of much of the last two albums, High Violet and Boxer, and really showcased how great those albums truly are, and how much the songs stand up on their own, even stripped of all orchestral accompaniment. Particular highlights included a searing and blistering rendition of 'Mistaken for Strangers', a spine-tingling and haunting version of 'Afraid of Everyone' with special guest Sufjan Stevens on backing vocals and tambourine, and a magisterial and epic version of 'Sorrow' with other special guest Nico Muhly on keys.
For the encore they started with the awesome 'Lemonworld' which had everyone singing "du du du du du", and really showed how together the band were and how essential each member was as they pushed the song's driving rhythm forward (all credit to Bryce Dessner as well, who proved his sensitivity and versatility as a lead guitarist throughout). A rousing and energetic 'Mr November' followed and had Matt screaming/shouting at the top of his lungs and throwing himself about the stage liked he'd suddenly joined a punk band. He then went far into the audience, much to everyone's delight.
The closer, a stripped-back version of 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks', meanwhile, had the band huddled together on the stage and performing acoustic and totally unplugged (showing just how powerful Matt's vocals really are, unaided by a microphone), making for an intimate campfire moment with the audience singing along and totally mesmerised. It was the perfect unforgettable ending to a perfect unforgettable night. As Matt sings on 'Afraid of Everyone', they may not have the drugs to sort it out, but watching them is certainly better than any chemical high you could ever have.
Photograph: Nick Pickles/www.music-photographer.co.uk