The “landmark” first gig that I set off to directly from my new job, was this midweek trip up “The Smoke”, to catch the band who arguably now occupy REM’s former position at the vanguard of US indie/ alternative rock, Ohio’s The National. Their last go-around, 4 years ago, saw them cement their status as the “go-to” band for all earnest black-shirted muso types, by selling out 2 nights at the cavernous Ally Pally (my gig 897), so it was inevitable that tickets for their announced 4 dates at the more intimate (but still bloody huge) former Hammersmith Odeon, in support of their current “Sleep Well Beast” album (which sees them augment their usual deliciously dark, morose late night alt-rock with subtle smatterings of electronica beats, without going full-on “Empires And Dance” on our collective asses), would be as rare as rocking horse shit. Luckily, I got in on the advance-CD purchase pre-sale, hitting “refresh” until one of my 4 open windows furnished me with a ticket. Tuesday (day 2) I got, so Tuesday it is!
Facebook friend David Line, formerly vocalist of Seafood (the only UK band worth half a damn, during the late 90’s/ early 00’s, and still, at 22, my most-seen “live” band – and a brilliantly visceral experience every time, I might add…!) also got Tuesday, so I was on the lookout for him! Headed off at 4 and hit the venue just before doors at 7, after a trouble-free journey and took a place on the wonky barriers, extreme left, watching the National’s congregation respectfully file in. My early arrival unfortunately also meant that I was subject to another support slot from The National’s “pet” support act, This Is The Kit. As before, they were female fronted, polite, accomplished and understated US alt-country – music for walking a rainy Appalachian trail, perhaps – with an occasional pretty intertwining harmony or discordant riff to divert me from their usual material, which was unfortunately quite, quite dull. The biggest cheer was when they brought the National’s Aaron Dessner to sit in on guitar for a couple of their later numbers. Hmmm…
The place actually felt like a sell-out by now and I left my front-row but oddly obscured vantage spot for a loo break, spotting a familiar looking face on the way back, about 1/3 back. True enough, t’was Mr. Line, and greetings, introductions to his lovely family, and catching up comfortably passed the time until the lights dimmed at 9, a “Please Stand By” message appeared on a large overhanging video screen, and video of The National themselves, hanging backstage, was projected, until they emerged to a reverential welcome. Opening with 4 straight new numbers – there’s confidence in your audience and material for you! – they sounded pindrop-perfect, their bleak, introspective and hauntingly gothic new material given incongruous life by some startling blocks of ultraviolet colour on the screen , interspersing the usual band performance shots. “Walk It Back”, stark and bucolic, recalled “Automatic”-era REM and was an early highlight, before a blood-red backdrop heralded the oozing, slow-burn intro of “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, a somewhat understated version, leading ultimately to its’ usual dramatic climax.
“Understated” is probably the operative word for this whole performance, actually… brilliant sound, an expertly chosen set veering between slow, stripped back material and their rockier moments (a perfect example being a brilliant mid-set double of an angular, propulsive “Mistaken For Strangers” and a racy, jet propelled “Graceless”, being followed by the tender “Carin At The Liquor Store”, as if to clear the air), Matt Berninger’s usual befuddled Geography teacher stage presence and vocals veering between half-remembered mumble and startled shriek, and the Dessner twins’ occasional dual guitar shredding, throwing sharp relief onto the reverentially observed quieter moments. All that and more… it again felt, however, that The National were playing within themselves, pacing themselves over the 2 hours, or even 4 nights. Nothing wrong with that, I guess; a few moments of driftwood in the set for me, sure, but when it worked (the afore-mentioned “Mistaken”/ “Graceless” double, a startling, proto-punk “Turtleneck” or the brass blare fanfare of a singalong and totally appropriate “England”) it really was quite breathtaking.
“Day I Die” was ragged and riff-strafingly dramatic, and the taciturn Berninger announced set closer “About Today” as, “the most depressing song ever written… enjoy!” “Terrible Love”, the final of a 3-song encore, finally saw Berninger really cut loose, crowdsurfing, Frank Turner style, as the song took dramatic flight behind him, bringing another slightly uneven but occasionally majestic 2 hours to a close. A fortuitous set-list and farewells to my gig companions – good to catch up with David again! – before a similarly unimpeded journey home. Worthy as ever, The National, and at times stunning; overall, a splendid evening!