Alexandra Palace, London
13th November 2013
Louder Than War’s Willow Colios went to check out The National on the first of two sold out dates at London’s Alexandra Palace.
The National have come a long way in 12 years. In 2001 with just a self-titled debut record under their belts they were up the hill from Alexandra Palace and down the other end of Holloway Road at The Buffalo Bar, a venue that could barely hold eighty people.
Tonight they are in London’s biggest standing venue with a capacity of over 10,000 and it suits them. They blow the crowd away. Completely self assured they let the songs do the talking. Singer Matt Berninger doesn’t address the audience with even a hello for at least the first half hour of what turns into a non-stop almost two hour set. He wanders around the stage, seemingly in a daze, paying each of his bandmates a visit.
But at the same time Matt and the band seem at the height of their powers, with many fans seeing them for the first time surprised at the fidelity of their live sound. They’ve spared no expense in bringing both strings and trombone players on tour to add extra texture, replicating every nuance of the albums, so beloved by so many.
And the set is nothing if not comprehensive, drawing on almost all of latest album Trouble Will Find Me, kicking off with a double header of Don’t Swallow The Cap and I Should Live In Salt but then taking in earlier singles Mistaken For Strangers and Bloodbuzz Ohio showing that The National have come to rock The Palace and no mistake.
The National are unfazed by playing a palace – “we were on the set of Game of Thrones and it prepared us for tonight”. But because Ally Pally isn’t a raked theatre if you are shorter than the person in front there’s a chance you won’t see very much. They’ve got this covered though and also managed to bring an extra dimension to the performance with two giant HD screens that display a combination of live shots and an array of visual effects. Even if you’re a “it’s just about the music” purist, the fast cutting and non-invasive camerawork actually add to the intensity of some of the faster songs. I’ve not seen a band execute anything like it live before and it works really well. And at the very least it’s more respectful to a large audience than Bob Dylan playing to a huge arena with no screens, hiding in the corner playing piano.
One of the first singalong moments of the night comes on the sparse I Need My Girl, making it clear that Trouble Will Find Me has won over the core fanbase and added many more. What has built The National into this colossus? I think it’s that live and on record Matt Berninger’s confessional lyrics and world worn singing can’t fail to connect so directly. Nothing feels fake, he does open up and bleed, never more so than when singing lines like “I didn’t ask for this pain it just came over me” on Pink Rabbits.
The emotional directness and atmospheric qualities of the music give the songs a cinematic quality and tonight’s encore begins with Lean, recorded for the film The Hunger Games which, Berninger informs anyone who’s not seen it, “is not about an eating contest”. For a grand finale the band play a quiet acoustic version of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks with guitars and delicate trombones that gets almost all of the capacity crowd singing along. It’s a moving moment to bring this epic show to a close.
SET LIST (with thanks to Mr Warren Jarm)
Don’t Swallow The Cap
I Could Live In Salt
Mistaken For Strangers
Sea of Love
Afraid of Everyone
Hard to Find
I Need My Girl
This Is The Last Time
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
The National’s latest LP Trouble Will Find Me is out on 4AD.