After weeks of anticipation, the day finally dawned - Thursday 6 May and The National’s concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
I’ve been to the Albert Hall once before when I went to see Cirque de Soleil. On that occasion, I was wearing a jacket and tie (family birthday) and was perched precariously in the upper circle which gave me vertigo.
I had some reservations about seeing a proper concert here and had disconcerting images of posh people in dinner jackets, sitting down, politely applauding an acoustic set. Anyway, I got the tube to High St. Kensington, stopped off at the Goat Tavern for a quick drink en route.and then made my way to the famous venue next to Imperial College.
I had a brilliant seat down in the stalls to the left of the stage and thankfully although there were a few city types in suits, I didn’t spot any dinner jackets or bow ties. As we waited for the band, I heard two blokes talking loudly about the logistics of getting a taxi afterwards and watched people queuing for Hagen Das ice-cream. Who said ‘Rock’n’Roll’ was dead ?
At 9:15pm, the various band members took the stage and opened with ‘Mistaken for Strangers’. Thankfully, I think Matt sensed the slightly subdued, reserved atmosphere and came forward, urging everyone to stand up which immediately made for a much better time for everyone.
The National don’t travel light on tour. The band is formed of two pairs of brothers; Aaron and Bryce Dessner (guitars), Bryan (drums) and Scott Devendorf (bass) together with with singer Matt Berninger. In addition, Padma Newsome plays violin, keyboards and, at one point,some sort of accordion contraption. The ensemble is completed by a brass section (trumpet, trombone).
Occasionally, I’ve tried to pinpoint why I like The National so much and the two main factors are Bryan Devendorf’s metronomic, unceasing, crisp drumming (which is usually high in the mix) and Matt’s thought provoking, ambiguous lyrics. As the crowd became more appreciative and vocal, the band proceeded with a brilliant set throwing in old favourites from ‘Alligator’ and ‘Boxer’ together with most of the songs from the yet to be released ‘High Violet’.
Matt joked about the cavernous and imposing size of the venue (‘I wrote this song in a small room like this’) and then proceeded to forget the lyrics to ‘Baby - we’ll be fine’. He tried again before the band aborted the attempt and moved on to ‘Afraid of Everyone’ (‘Don’t worry - this is a new one and I know the lyrics’).
Not surprisingly, the acoustics and sound was brilliant although a neighbour also wanted to ’turn the drums up’ and the band performed two of my favourite songs ; Conversation 16’ and ‘Apartment Story’. Like most of Matt’s lyrics, ‘Conservation 16’ can be interpreted in many different ways. It sounds like a love song (‘You’re the only thing I ever want anymore’) but then savagely turns into a loveless, broken, hate-filled relationship (‘I was afraid I’d eat your brains Cause I’m evil’).
It’s clear the band are musical perfectionists - in recent interviews the band make it clear the production process is slow, iterative and laborious and scrupulous attention is paid to every last detail. To be honest, although I like ‘High Violet’, I do find some songs rather bleak; ‘Sorrow’ in particular. In fact, at times, you find yourself reaching for Joy Division’s ‘Closer’ in an effort to lighten the mood. However, some of the ‘High Violet’ material which left me lukewarm was completely transformed when performed live (‘England’).
Also, although I absolutely love the song, I find the lo-fi mix of ‘Terrible Love’ on ‘High Violet’ so ropey I can hardly bring myself to listen to it. Again, I read in interviews that Matt wanted to cut out all the shouting (e.g. ‘Abel’ on ‘Alligator’) and the band were also keen to create a less polished production than on ‘Boxer’. Personally, I think the production and quality of ‘Boxer’ was so immaculate, so perfect I would have used the same studio, the same producer, the same instruments and worn the same lucky underpants.
However, Aaron seemed to deliberately favour the raw, unpolished version of ‘Terrible Love’; in fact, he acknowledges that, even after the weeks of mixing, some completed ‘High Violet’ tracks are very close to the original demo tapes. Anyway, back to the concert and the band closed with ‘Fake Empire’ and returned to the stage for a magnificent encore comprising:
- Vanderlyle Cry Baby Geeks - one of the lighter, more accessible songs from ‘High Violet’.
- All the Wine - one of my all time favourite National songs musically and lyrically.
- Mr November - Matt went walkabout way out into the lower circle for this one.
- Terrible Love - superb with all the additional musical elements.
- About Today - the only song I had never heard before - an extended guitar jam slowly building to a cresendo.
It was weird hearing ‘Mr. November’ which was used in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign on election day in Britain and hearing hundreds of people screaming in unison:
I’m the new blue blood
I’m the great white hope.
I’m the new blue blood.
I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November.
I’m Mr. November, I won’t fuck us over.