@binmouth and I sat high up in the hallowed surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall, now the prestige venue of choice for many top acts. It is a remarkable venue that affords the great majority of the audience an excellent, if sometimes distant, view however the venue has a notoriously poor acoustic despite the mushrooms in the roof. The National had chosen RAH for this their main UK show prior to the official release of High Violet (assuming the previous nights Electric Ballroom is accepted as a warm up gig) and typically seats ‘sold out’ almost instantly.
Support was from Buke & Gass who did sterling work as a two piece to warm the crowd up (despite many staying in the bar – shame on them). Buke & Gass is certainly a band that deserves greater and closer attention, they played with style and an intriguing creativity. The National have a bit of a fondness for the slightly odd as support, St Vincent played Bristol when last they were there.
On cue the lights go down, violet light floods the stage and some portentous walk on music plays and on they come. I have to say that the early songs sounded fine but not as secure as they might have been, the band perhaps a little unsure how to deal with the Hall. Baby, We’ll Be fine was started, re-started and eventually abandoned when Matt Berninger totally screwed up the lyrics.... ‘shame, it sounded f***ing sweet in rehearsal’ . This seemed to be the moment when the band settled down. From here on in it got tighter and more assured, nerves seemed to have been wiped away.
High Violet is a great and majestic new collection of material and the songs shone during the set at the Albert Hall ably bolstered by songs from Boxer and Alligator. Berninger is an exta-ordinary front man. In some respects he is reminiscent of Roddy Woomble (from my other tip-top band) in that he is a strange mixture of reticence and shyness and by turns effervescent and full of wreckless abandon. Where Berninger is particular is in what appears to be his lack of rhythm, his on stage jerks and spasms must surely belie what is going on in his head. Not being an archetypical front man, clearly pained in some respects from fronting up, this does lend him a humanity and vulnerability, also shared by Woomble, that oddly makes him an ideal front man, although perhaps at his best in slightly more modest surroundings.
Stand out songs? Well of course Abel, All the Wine, England, Terrible Love, oh and of course the perennially excellent Mr November and final extended and climactic closer About Today. In an attempt to bring IDS into the occasion he got the dubious delight of listening to Secret Meeting down the line from the mobile – must have sounded shocking, sorry... As the set ran on it got better and better, the playing, Berningers performance walking out among the crowd, and finally a sense from the crowd that there was a real connection.
Great though it was I still feel less comfortable with gigs of this sort of size, 7000 is affair audience even in this the most accommodating of venues, and it is hard to feel the immediacy and the closeness that you inevitably do at smaller shows. That said here I am a day after still with the songs running around my head and the event still at the front of my mind. Let’s do hope that there will be some smaller scale shows maybe later in the year. The National – maybe this is their year, maybe this is the big break through (to what?) album? They have certainly paid their dues but what a shame if they end up doing the stadium route and the fragile connection with their fan base is fractured and distanced. But what music ... I am still in love.
Pic Of Matt and H courtesy of @binmouth, a few more back stagers can be seen here
Some great pix if the night are here from David Emery