Thursday, 12 November 2009

749 THE NATIONAL, Caroline Martin, Birmingham Carling Academy, Monday 30 June 2008

Did I say, "never again?" My heart sank when The National announced only 2 post-Glastonbury dates, in Leeds and at this impossible-to-find venue in Birmingham. Which would win out - my revulsion towards the possibility of getting lost for an hour around Birmingham city centre again, or my desire to once again experience the live power of this deliciously seductive new American band?

Well, rock won out (of course), so, armed with copious maps and new RAC-supplied directions, I set off at 6.30, running into trouble on the M5, seemingly due to a recently-cleared obstruction, and getting off at Junction 3 at 10 to 8. The directions this time took me off the main drag into town at the Jewellery Quarter, then around the top, under a large underpass and lo and behold, there's the gig! So, parked up and in by 20 past 8, and downstairs for the first time in this large Carling venue, hitting the dancefloor as folkie Caroline Martin was finishing off her inoffensive but innocuous set.

Milled around and took a spot stage left for The National's appearance at 9. Since their Empire set last November, they've become a firm in-car stereo favourite of mine, and I've tracked down their extensive back catalogue for more of their introspective yet anthemic, morose yet euphoric, glacially cool yet still prone to episodes of wild unhinged abandon, US alt-rock. Recalling the power of that Empire performance, my hopes were perhaps unfairly high, yet from the outset I was not to be disappointed. The 8-piece band, expanded "live" to include a 2-man horn section and extra guitarist, were on top form from the start, dishing up slow-burn yet emotive atmospheric mood music, which built like steam, gushing forth into jagged rolling crescendos of crashing noise. The uniquely tonsilled Matt Berenger, his voice dark rich like Belgian chocolate, was the visual focal point throughout, throwing shapes and physically enacting this set, veins and sinews bulging from his neck as he roared the epic denouements to songs such as "Secret Meeting", the heart-tugging "Slow Show" and a frankly amazing rendition of "Squalor Victoria".

The National were brilliant. A shame the crowd didn't respond in kind - by no means sold out, they were just the enthusiastic side of indifferent. I was jigging around from my position of 4 or 5 rows back, and I didn't see anyone else doing that until the end! Damn shame.

The "Boxer" double salvo "Mistaken For Strangers" and "Fake Empire" capped the set, then an encore featuring a Caroline Martin duet cover was topped by easily their best song, "Mr. November", an anthemic epic rocker of early U2/ Dear Leader proportions, Matt once again giving it full effort, throwing himself into the front rows, and giving this superb set the ending it deserved.

So, a great night, only partly marred by a car park pay-mare (a 20 minute queue!), but made better by being able to find the venue this time around. You never know, I might be back here again!

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