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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

Royal Festival Hall, London, August 10th 2009

I would wager that few of you reading this have heard of the National but if I’m wrong, then I’m sure you won’t hesitate to let me know. If you are at all familiar with this cultish outfit from Brooklyn then more likely than not you’re a fan. And not a “yeah I liked their last album” sort of fan, but rather a “I just can’t wait for the new record to come out, what, did you say they’re playing a gig in London? Well I’ve just got to get tickets for that…” type.

And there are apparently a lot of them around. Enough to sell out this one-off gig at the Royal Festival Hall in a matter of hours as far as I understand. So for your Reviewer and Photographer, it’s one of those uncomfortable occasions, like being a neutral in the middle of the Kop at Liverpool’s Anfield ground, or the famous (and technically now dismantled) Shed at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge. And thinking about it, a football ground might have been a better venue for the gig than the formal, sometimes stuffy, and very seated RFH. This was clearly an uncomfortable locale for a band more used to playing the Bowery Ballroom, with fans who, despite the rather cerebral nature of the National’s work, and regardless of their English reserve (actually the one shouting “Stand up you fuckers. Fucking stand up” was from Glasgow) were clearly intent on celebrating its visceral side in bodily fashion.
The National have four albums to their name, stretching back to 2001’s eponymous debut. The last, 2007’s The Boxer made the charts (number 68) but more importantly was a critical triumph. I’m sure the T-shirt buying hoards here have got all of them, and the singles and EPs, and the live podcast downloads. They’ve probably pre-ordered the highly anticipated forthcoming album (“I just can’ wait for the new record to come out, what, did you say they’re playing a gig in London? Well I’ve just got to get tickets for that…”). No doubt part of this devotion is down to the charismatic frontman, Matt Berninger, of whom more later.   The National Boxer(
But some I’m sure is because the National have a sound of their own, built around the jousting guitars of brothers Aron and Bryce Dessner, which feature strongly in both new and old material. When it works it’s a nice trick, bouncing riffs and chords off each other, building up complex layers of sound reminiscent of the incarcerated Mr Spector’s Wall. But even in a relatively short gig it runs the danger of sounding, at least to the unconverted, a tad formulaic. That, I think, is where the intensity kicks in. For this is one of the most intense and committed performances I’ve seen for a while; if the Dessner boys’ left hands had meant blood-soaked fretboards they wouldn’t have stopped playing, you could see it in their eyes. And you could see how it got to some of the fans: “Stand up you fuckers. Fucking stand up”.
Did I mention Berninger? Well, he is Mr Intense. He has a peach of a voice: think Nick Cave meets Scott Walker; deep and brooding, reflective and guilt ridden. He paces the stage liked a caged animal, pulling and tearing at his shirt and trousers, occasionally pausing, fists clenched as tight as tight can be, to stare into the distance and howl or scream unimaginable torrents of anguish. I’m not surprised he needs a drink: chilled white wine by the ice-filled glass full (at one point he curses the fact that he’s wasted five minutes trying to pull a cork out of a screw-cap closed bottle with his teeth), drunk like a man rescued from the desert might greedily gulp at a glass of water.
He certainly drives his band and provokes the audience (he provoked a fit of boredom in the Photographer but that’s another story), already so goaded by their foul-mouthed Glaswegian, that it’s easy for Berninger to get them on their feet; at which point, perversely, he jumps from the stage to fill a vacant pew in the front row. Love it or hate it, it’s a remarkably powerful performance, giving colour to the lyrics and melodies of some interesting and well-crafted songs like ‘All the wine’, and set closer ‘Fake Empire’. National
We left during the encore. Your reviewer was quite engaged, but the Photographer pretty fed up with all the prancing and cavorting, much of it from people who were old enough to know better, some of it frankly embarrassing. Anyway, like I said, you probably haven’t heard of the National, but I would suggest you devote a few minutes to listening to their material. And while you’re doing that, why not look out for Edinburgh’s The Broken Records, who played a fantastic and highly original support set. Should you feel like being put through a couple of cycles of an emotionally- charged washing machine, then go and watch Mr Berninger strutting his stuff: it’s a hard act to follow. – Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)
Listen: The National on MySpace

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