There’s a certain almost unexplainable grandeur about The National. It feels inherent in everything they do – the quiver in Matt Berninger’s baritone, the forcefulness of Bryan Devendorf’s drumming – and this quality was none more evident than last night at the Royal Albert Hall in London. As the lights dimmed and the five nearly still silhouettes on stage broke the nervous, excited silence with the first chords of “Mistaken for Strangers”, lead singer Matt Berninger beckoned the seated crowd beyond the standing pit to their feet, engaging them like a group of friends. The energy seemed to rush forward with every knee buckled upright, back past where I stood in the huddled standing crowd and on to the stage where these Ohio-born musicians had only just begun to charm a crowd that had long since fallen in love with them. They already had us in the palms of their hands.
The show continued with this same momentous energy, following with “Anyone’s Ghost”, before reaching one of the many highlights of the night, just 2 songs in, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”. A staple in their live set since early 2009, it elevated the already terrific atmosphere into something close to life-affirming, the crowd moving and holding on to every word as Berninger collapsed into the exhausted “I’m on a bloodbuzz….God I am” chorus. Boxer favourite “Slow Show” was another highlight, coming in about half way through the initial set. Like much of their performance, the song felt distinctly invigorated. Though still as gorgeous and slow-burning as the studio version, to see Matt Berninger rocking cautiously over his microphone, in that deep, distinct tone, his colleagues silent and huddled over their instruments, and lines like “I leaned on the wall, the wall leaned away” humming in the air, they had the entire crowd lost in their romantic plight.
Crowd-pleaser “Fake Empire” ended the initial set on a high note, leaving us all breathless and stirring as the band made their way off stage, greeted by shouts for more. Their absence proved to be brief. Moments later they reappeared for an encore and what proved to be arguably the finest part of the night, with five songs lined up to close the show. They started with the emotional “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, followed into the more up-tempo “All the Wine”, before erupting with the enormous, sing-a-long “Mr. November”, which saw Berninger making his way all around the venue, front to back, as the crowd roared “I won’t fuck us over!”. The momentum-building “Terrible Love” was next, and though some have voiced complaints over its lo-fi studio version, the live rendition is as grandiose as any song they’ve written. It ended with “About Today”, one of their earliest live favourites (recorded on the Cherry Tree EP), and it took us out with a subdued crescendo.
As if I expected anything less, I left the venue amazed and in high spirits, surrounded by people chatting fervently- how the lights flashed in brilliant waves of red, orange, blue and green through each song, how the Dessner’s stood so nonchalantly at either side of Berninger, with the bearded Bryan Devendorf pounding away on a snare behind them, and his brother plucking his bass coolly in the background. Of course a couple wandered off to argue about less important matters, like the British elections in progress that night or something, but we left with nothing else on our minds. The sound still rung loudly in our ears as the Royal Albert Hall disappeared behind us, on our way to fall carelessly into drunken stupors as we talked and talked about every last detail and song. It was a spectacular performance; awesome, totally genius.