Broken RecordsEdit this event
Trying to define what makes The National such a special band is almost impossible. If you analyse and dissect the music there’s nothing overly remarkable about them, with many would-be fans likely never to give them more than a cursory listen. But the secret to their success lies in understanding music: the way it ebbs and flows, those moments that need near silence to hit home their point and exactly when the appropriate time is to unleash a flurry of noise.
On first inspection, support band Broken Records’ songs seem equally as aware of these minutiae; full of depth and of a standard that defies their fledgling lifespan. Yet when arranged into a coherent order their frailties begin to show. It’s not that they’re a samey act (as almost every song uses different instruments) or ill-judged – there’s just no respite. The epic grandeur is present and correct, but there isn’t a vulnerable ‘heart’ on display to make you cherish the band in the same way the majority do tonight’s headline act.
You see, The National truly understand all of these things and are masters of their subtlety. No one will probably ever witness Matt Berninger jumping from a light rigging, because he doesn’t have to. Likewise the Dessner brothers are unlikely to smash up their guitars because they can produce far more interesting things with them intact. When you combine staggeringly intricate drumming, a beguiling and awkward front man with a fragile yet warming tone and 3 guitarists who know when to lead and when to support, the result is something unique. And tonight they show London what they’re capable of.
The Royal Festival Hall feels like the perfect place to enjoy the band at their near best. It’s an unorthodox gig, truth be told, with some members of the crowd opting to remain seated, while others dance in the aisles or stand joyously clapping and drowning out the actual percussion. The lighting throughout is a wonder to behold, at times seemingly transforming the room itself into a living extension of the songs. Whilst it’s likely that your experience of the event varies massively depending on where in the auditorium you are situated, it does undoubtedly feel like an event to remember; a left-of-centre moment in the band’s history that truly feels like they’ve ‘made it’.
And the set is joyously raucous, upbeat and Boxer laden as a result, albeit alongside fleeting glimpses of the new (3 songs in total) and nods to the old (‘Available’ gets a surprising resurrection). ‘Start A War’ is stunningly sparse, with the guitar line seemingly blossoming into life out of thin air; the closing lines of “You know I dreamed about you, for 29 years before I saw you” in ‘Slow Show’ force hairs to stand on end; ‘Secret Meeting’ feels like welcoming back an old friend from endless travelling; and ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ magically doubles in volume midway through, defying the band’s occasional shortcoming of transferring their louder numbers to the live setting.
Several songs also manage to acquire a fuller realisation in the setting: ‘Squalor Victoria’ in particular feels immense, and the slightly plain ‘Green Gloves’ and ‘Apartment Story’ finally show us what they’re capable of.
If there were any complaints, it’s that some of Alligator’s finest moments have been a bit harshly cast aside (’Daughters of the Soho Riots’; ‘Friend of mine’) in favour of the numbers which have grander, more horn-heavy finales. But the sign that after nearly two hours the crowd is still hungry for more is, if anything, more of a compliment than a criticism.
However the band has saved their best for last. A stunning encore begins with a blistering ‘Mr. November’ that resonates around the building like it was born here, complete with Berninger both sliding around the stage on an accidentally constructed ice rink and also venturing 40 foot from the stage to hug a jubilant crowd; and it ends with an even more staggering ‘About Today’, probably the most direct and heartbreaking song the band will likely ever commit to record, delivered with breathtaking beauty.
It’s this ability to switch between varying emotions via such crafted, delicate musicianship that make The National quite the treasured international band they have become to so many fans; and yet tonight somehow feels like they have returned home…
Photo by David Emery
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