The National just so happened to be in London at the same time I was this year. I had to nab a ticket for the event, and my sister was gracious enough to come with me, even though she hadn’t heard a single tune by them. I let her listen to some of the new stuff I had found online (even before the CD was out), and a couple of the more anthem-sounding songs from Alligator, plus my favorites on Boxer.
We got to Royal Albert Hall right when the doors opened, found our seats, our eyes popping out (at least mine) at how close my tickets really were. I had bought stall seats, which sounded as if they were sky high and the band members would be only pinpricks of neon light. Not so. It was a clear view of the stage from the left side. We could see the keyboardist/violinist/accordionist, the drummer a bit higher in elevation. Matt Berninger, the lead singer whom Mary says I sound exactly like when I sing along to the band, would wander around ceaselessly during the show, so I wouldn’t have to try too hard to look around heads to see him on stage.
To go along with the excitement, Jess and I had some Grolsch from the bar – a not-too-horrible £4 considering the venue. After that, we sat and listened to Buke and Gass, the people opening for The National. Jess and I agreed that the singer had vestiges of Tori Amos to her voice. They were a two-part band playing five instruments I think. It was pretty impressive for another US-band. After their short set was done, The National came out, Berninger of course with his wine and bottle. The further along he got, the tipsier he became.
They started off with “Mistaken for Strangers” which blew me away. The acoustics at the Hall were stellar. Many people in the front weren’t sure if this was the place to stand or not, especially those at the front, so most remained in their seats during the first tune. Berninger stopped that at once at the start of “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and jumped off the stage, pulling the people in the front row from their seats like an inebriated aunt at a wedding reception would. Raucous cheers rent through the hall, and all those not yet standing did so.
Of course the show was mostly formed around the new material from High Violet, which I absolutely adore. All but “Lemonworld” and “Runaway” were played. My guesses are because the band’s least favorite on HV is indeed “Lemonworld”; and “Runaway” is quite long, a downer, and not a one for those not wishing to get too depressed.
“Anybody’s Ghost” and “Afraid Of Everyone” both sounded ethereal. The palpitating drums kicked in at the end of “Afraid…” so spectacularly, and here’s where my sister was completely won over, as drummers are some of the favorite people in the bands she likes. I believe Devendorf is truly one of the best drummers in indie music today; he just went crazy in this song, in “Terrible Love,” and – to my delight – “Squalor Victoria”. He went on for over a minute with the opening riff, finally allowing the violin to strum beneath for a few bars, and then Berninger crooned “Underline everything, I’m a professional, in my beloved white shirt…” and it was just perfect. This performance outshone the album version tenfold. After “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, a girl ten rows or so behind us shouted “YEAH OHIO!” which made Jess and me a bit proud that people were so gung-ho about Ohio until she then went, “WOOO, CINCINNATI!!!” We’ll forgive. This time.
My favorites on HV were done perfectly (Conversation 16, England, Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks); I can’t even begin to explain how I felt during these three songs. I was transported; it was transcendental.
“Slow Show”. “All the Wine”, and “Apartment Story” had a touch of familiarity with the crowd, cheers at the beginning, the piano’s breaths through the applause. When the band started “Fake Empire”, it became even more prominent; everyone sang along with Berninger quite clearly as he droned “…put a little somethin’ in our lemonade, and take it with us. We’re half-awake, in a fake empire… it’s hard to keep track of you, falling through the sky.”
He ran around and simply went crazy the further along the concert progressed, jumping off the stage and leaping onto the stairs in our section during “Abel”, sitting down and softly singing the bridge before screaming “my mind’s not right, my mind’s not right!” over and over until his voice was so raspy he needed more wine. But there was more screaming of course when he did “Mr November” for an encore; hell yes, the English are waiting. I think Berninger and the rest of the National crew know what to do now. (Read lyrics to understand the last sentence.)
At this part of the concert, he ran down one of the right-hand aisles almost to the back of the arena, climbing through the crowd. Jess and I were wondering how far the extension cord was going to go at this particular moment! He managed to get close to where the balcony seating was in the far back corner and – from what we could glean from so far away – seemed inclined to scale it. At this time Berninger was hammered and probably thought better of it after a half-minute of the band playing, smirking at times, and waiting for him to get back and continue with his “I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr November” spiel.
In the end, this might have been the best concert I’ve seen … almost nothing went amiss. Only a tiny part in the middle when “Baby We’ll Be Fine” began and Berninger forgot a part of the first verse and started with the refrain too early; he paused then halted everyone playing. He apologized to the fans and said, “We’re going to try this again…” They did, and got to that damnable moment in the first verse; he got another line out and then became wordless once more. I still am not sure if it was the wine or just forgetfulness; he wasn’t that far into the set. But he was a great sport about that, putting his hands up to cue the final measure of the song quickly, apologizing once more, then telling us not to worry, “I know the lyrics to the next one!” Afraid of Everyone began, and things went flawlessly from that moment forward.
The elation I felt after the concert was indescribable. Even though we could not find a pub still serving drinks (it was after 11pm), the fact was that I went to such an awesome show, seeing a band I had missed twice in 2008, seeing how into it they all were: It was truly awesome.
“I’m a festival; I’m a parade.”