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“The English are waiting / And I don’t know what to do”. How befitting to bridge band and audience with the political, ‘Mr November’, at the Royal Albert Hall on election night. On a strange evening when people were being locked out of voting booths up and down the country, here was an all-seated crowd being raised to its feet by indie royalty, and the very soundtrack to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign; the rallying cry of ‘Fake Empire’.
The National’s following has mushroomed dramatically since breakthrough record, Alligator, in 2005. And yet: “Being on stage is not a comfortable place to be. I don’t think any of us likes to have the lights on us”, singer Berninger told Uncut in March. It was no surprise then that the vocalist rarely talked between songs. However his gratitude towards the crowd and wishing us luck with the election came across sincerely enough, even throughout a five-track encore where he wandered the stalls and climbed the velvet rows, embracing strangers, proud of his latest, flawless number, the determined ‘Terrible Love’.
The Ohio five-piece transported their show to a historic and elegant stage, forsaking neither passion nor stamina. They were augmented by three brass-and-strings extras, flanking the immaculate mainstays (Matt Berninger, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Scott and Bryan Devendorf), and each band member ended as he began, arriving and departing one-by-one in a cataract of purple light, whistling and applause. Inevitably affected by the grandeur of the arena – the Hall grounded its booze to the plush bars – a sophisticated fan at every door would proclaim, just loud enough for the passing-by newbies to hear, that they had known The National since the obscurity of Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers (2003) and Cherry Tree (2004), an understandable boast.
After opening with punchy ‘Mistaken For Strangers’, the band swooned in and out of tracks from High Violet, the new LP available from Monday. There were welcome newcomers – ‘Little Faith’, the witty ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ (“I still owe money to the money to the money I owe”) and the effervescent ‘England’ – and there were three ostensible reasons this group have emerged from the unknown to selling out the Royal Albert Hall in under five minutes: ‘Fake Empire’, delicate ‘Slow Show’, and the bass-weighty intimacy of ‘Apartment Story’, all fine oral poems – the unmistakable accent of Boxer, 2007. Alarm threatened when Berninger abandoned the ordinary ‘Baby We’ll Be Fine’ after a single chorus: the apologetic but unfazed front man fluffed his lines. This was less an omission of ill discipline or nervousness, than an indication of the group’s shift from toiling through old album-fillers to celebrating their best work.
Completing a set list that harkened to artists as diverse as Springsteen, Joy Division and Arcade Fire, the valedictory ‘About Today’ kept faithful to its euphoric live-version on the 2008 Virginia EP; a lover’s lament bullied by the furor of guitar and percussive chaos. And for a few more moments, all around me, a riot of limbs and hearts rumored.
Set List: Mistaken For Strangers, Anyone’s Ghost, Bloodbuzz Ohio, Secret Meeting, Baby We’ll Be Fine, Afraid of Everyone, Slow Show, Squalor Victoria, Little Faith, Conversation 16, Apartment Story, England, Abel, Sorrow, Fake Empire / Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, All The Wine, Mr November, Terrible Love, About Today