I rearranged my work day as well, setting off at 4 then hitting bad traffic in Ealing, and complete fucking idiots around Crouch End, nevertheless parking up in the leafy and well-attended venue car park at the bottom of the hill at my expected 7pm arrival time. I'd really forgotten how huge this place was until I entered the ornate and opulent entrance hall; the large walk-through to the main hall, bar-lined and smelling of burgers, is bigger than most venues I normally go to - hell, the toilets are bigger than most venues I normally go to! The merch stand was as big as a festival one, with spicy prices to match (£25 per t-shirt? Ouch!), and a drummer played in the middle of the walk-through hall. Popped into the vast auditorium to catch support This Is The kit. They featured a female vocalist with similar vocal inflections to Madder Rose's Mary Lorson, but nowhere near as good material, pitching up somewhere between windswept alt-folk and low key late night bar-room music. When good - which wasn't often - they recalled a poor man's Cowboy Junkies.
Had a Mike Mills moment as National guitarist Aaron Dessner wandered to the stage-side from backstage, so I popped over and got my ticket signed. Aaron remarked the previous night’s show was, “nice, sounded good,” despite the cavernous venue. This was later borne out during the show; I kept my place stage-left as the blue static projected onto the backdrop coalesced into the band name, the lights dimmed and a Kurt Vile track heralded the band’s entrance at 8.45, easing into the sonorous monotone rhythm of “Don’t Swallow The Cap”, the sound already great, pindrop perfect.
Great though it sounded, it was a little incongruous to see a band as sombre and introspective as The National in such a vast arena, cheered on by a 7,500 strong audience. Vocalist Matt Berninger seemed a little awed initially, wandering listlessly around the stage looking slightly befuddled and increasingly paranoid, like Walter White from “Breaking Bad”, whilst delivering his often incomprehensible and slightly daft lyrics in his low, melancholy baritone. It took a superb “Bloodbuzz Ohio” to kick things off for me, the Joy Division “Disorder”-esque pounding drumbeat leading to a noisefest crescendo. Thereafter the band settled, always fine, dark and moody and occasionally grasping at the hem of greatness. “Sea Of Love” saw Matt cut loose for the first time with some primal screaming; a moving “I Need My Girl” was introduced by the taciturn frontman with, “it’s my wife’s birthday; she’s somewhere in America so this is for her – someone tell her I said that, she’s pissed [at me]!” and an almost punk rock “Abel” was startlingly rocking with another screamed hook. The subsequent double of “Slow Show” and “Sorrow” for me stole the show; the former haunting and eerie, with Aaron’s piano riff complimenting the heart-breaking refrain, “I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you” perfectly, the latter a superbly Scott Walker-esque deep, wallowing ballad.
At times the strident riffery, no doubt intended to flesh out the songs in this cavernous space, seemed gauche and unnecessary (viz. a noisy “Humiliation”), other times it worked, with a superb, galloping “Graceless” ending with Matt in the photographer’s pit. However he capped that during thrillingly noisy encores “Mr November” and “Terrible Love”, surfing the front rows and delivering his by now hoarse, ragged vocals with vim and venom from within the mosh (yup, a National mosh!). A final “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” was dedicated with, “thanks to the guys who protected my testicles [in the mosh] the last 15 minutes!”, bringing a low-key end to an uneven but oft-times stunning 2 hour set.
So overall well worthwhile, as The National always are, and thanks to setlist.fm I set off during the final number, getting some good advice from the car park attendants for a clear run out onto the North Circular, home for 12.30. Great to see The National so popular now, they’re a quality band and certainly deserve it, but I’d much rather have seen this set in a smaller venue…