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It’s been a pretty good year for The National. First they release Boxer, an album containing arguably their best work to date, receiving universal acclaim across the globe in the process. And now they round the UK-leg of their year off with not only a strong placing in DiS’s top albums of 2007 list (vote!) but two sold-out nights at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire. Yes, two.
It’s fair to say we are in anticipation for tonight, the first of this double whammy. Partly because the band’s last UK show, back in March, resulted in a few unsatisfied customers (see here). We want this band to succeed; we want this dog to have its day. However, we’ll have to pick nervously at the label stuck to our beer bottles a little longer as Beggars label mate St Vincent (known as Annie Clark from Texas to her friends) takes to the stage. Described as ‘a multi-instrumentalist for a new era’ her lustrous voice, two microphones and a plethora of clever effects could slap her firmly with the Label Under Feist tag. However, her sound is more diverse but less melodic and her live energy, compared to her smoother recorded matter, raw and harsh. It’s bluesy, folksy, rocky, even break-beat dancey. She’s nearer a ‘one woman prog-rock band’. Twenty-five-year-old Annie displays a similar scorned diversity and unhinged-ness as a young PJ. The span in material from the relaxed ’Marry Me’ to the deranged ‘Your Lips Are Red’ is wide.
The National take to the stage with ‘Start A War’, exhibiting a cool sense of assuredness. It’s like a slow pressure release of an opener rather than the pop of a champagne cork we’re expecting. That energy eventually comes as Bryan Devendorf’s rocketing toms crash into ‘Secret Meeting’ and as frontman Matt Berninger welcomes the chorus with “I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain...”. I realise I am smiling. It’s put a real smile on my face. The National are back and they are playing a lot from second record Alligator: it’s exactly the warm embrace of the much-missed sweetheart we’d been longing for.
"This is for everyone who has to go to work tomorrow," says Berninger before plunging into the sobering ‘Baby, We’ll Be Fine’. The very purpose of a band performing their songs in a live environment is to bring them to life, but never has a song about the monotony of the corporate tightrope and how it can interact with a loving relationship, so austere in its imagery, sounded so beautiful and effecting. It ends as we witness Clogs’s Padama Newsome – having laced his violin lines throughout the track – snap! He literally rocks out with the power of John Bonham, whilst holding his antique classical instrument like Angus Young, strumming away, appearing to have lost all control. To describe every highlight tonight would require a review akin, in length, to Samuel Richardson's novel Clarissa, but the customary shouts and screams of ‘Abel’, which whip the crowd into a frenzy, contrast brilliantly with the lush arrangements of ‘The Geese of Beverly Road’. The band’s performance exudes the uninhibited aggression of the anthemic ‘Mr November’ to a tee, and it all ends finding Berninger perching precariously on the crowd barrier, being kept vertical only by his supporters, before finally falling and returning back to reality with a jolt. Berninger’s shy and diminutive stage manner makes him even more of a compelling front man. During each song completely lost in the moment, a tortured rock star, but afterwards always holding a palm briefly aloft to acknowledge – thanks, grinning with nervous energy trying not to make eye contact with this impressive crowd. It’s endearing and ever so ‘real’. This honest, imaginary world Berninger creates within is displayed with a more direct dynamic live. ‘Slow Show’ comes across as if a personal public statement tonight, ‘Cherry Tree’ like a secret we are privileged to be let in on.
But it’s the submissive loss found on ‘About Today’ that is the most affecting of the night. When it comes at the end of the second and final encore, nobody speaks. Just fixated like voyeurs on these men, who stand under this swirling mirror-ball refracting light around the auditorium, creating a levitating layer of alive sound. The lyric "You just walked away, And I just watched you... Slip away. How close am I, To losing you?" cuts like a knife. I never discovered quite how magical that song is, until tonight. It seems like it was all just ‘meant to be’.
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