Hunter S. Thompson once stated “music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of fuel. Sentimental people call it inspiration, but what they really mean is fuel,” Despite being invariably true, it fails to distinguish the key part: the music. So much of today’s music cannot even begin to be described as “fuel”. Nowadays endless monotonous tat lines the airwaves, a world away from the roaring sounds in Thompsons’ ears; the music that compels you onwards, that even in an existence of drudgery it can transform outlooks and hide apprehensions. The National are this. The National are fuel.
On June 26th they played to over 5,000 people at the Roundhouse in London. Reviewing a band live, whom you openly profess to love, can be a difficult task. In some ways it can blind you to how good the performance was, so inundated with enthusiasm for the artist that they can do no wrong. This certainly was the case when, as a fresh faced 15 year old, I saw Ryan Adams. I constantly lauded its brilliance for weeks after, Adams’s skill on stage, his charisma and voice. With hindsight however, it was a stale showing, a karaoke performance. Equally going to a gig with such high expectations can mean that when the performance is only a little off cue, it seems all the more disappointing. When watching Fleet Foxes a few years back, they no doubt a put in a well executed performance, but one that put me off the band for a good part of the year, purely because I went in with such lofted imaginations of what the gig would entail. Therefore last night I tried to go in with a level head so I could accurately describe the performance and not be swept away by my love for the band, for better or for worse. I am still not sure if I failed at this task, or The National really were just that great.
Much has been made of The National’s rise in the music industry; the classic hard working band who toured the hell out of their records and saw their fan base increase with each release. Their newest LP Trouble Will Find Me, has been swamped in similar critical acclaim to the previous and it is from this that the majority of their set at the Roundhouse is comprised. As with any band, when touring on a new album you inevitably gig your newest numbers to advertise the release as well as having something fresh and new to play. This is always the case and will carry on being, yet if there is one criticism of their performance last night it was the dominance of these songs. This is not to say they are bad songs, cause they’re really not. In fact some are arguably the best songs written this year and are conveyed fantastically live. However, when put in comparison to some of their earlier stuff, you notice less of a spark in the crowd. Maybe this is due to nostalgia or connection to the older songs due to time, but it is noticeable, however slight. They are strong songs but never special.
The band start with album opener I Should Live in Salt, followed by Don’t Swallow the Cap. It’s a sturdy beginning made all the more atmospheric by the venue itself and the impressive graphics and lighting that litter the backdrop behind. When they then break into High Violet’s Bloodbuzz Ohio does the tempo suddenly lift as the band begins to loosen and perform. Musically they’re fantastic. The Dessner and Devendorf brothers complement each other perfectly, a wonderful blend of instruments swimming within one another. Centre stage stands Matt Berninger. Whilst the others hold place, the pillars behind, Berninger is the glorious, staggering, sweat clad face of the band. Pint of wine swinging from his wrist, he lunges around the stage, looking lost yet completely at home. His voice an instrument at the fore, his persona the driving force. When they hark back to 2005 release Alligator with Secret Meeting, Berninger begins to unleash, his raw screams a reminder of the development of the band over the last decade. This is the ignition to the crowd, the chance to scream back his words of self doubt and vulnerability. Demons comes and goes in a flurry, 5,000 people delighting in the chance to euphorically cry, “when I walk into a room, I do not light it up, FUCK”. Wonderful irony.
What follows, Afraid of Everyone, Conversation 16 (off High Violet) and Squalor Victoria (off Boxer), just acts to highlight the depth of their catalogue. A return to Trouble, sees the two best songs from that album on the night, the calm plea of I Need My Girl before the swirling, This Is The Last Time. The moderate relaxation of the former is breached by the growing finale of the later. This is then further usurped by Abel; Berninger’s painstaking cries of “My minds not ready” are greeted with riotous cheers as the crowd breaks into a frenzied sweat.
This review continues to trail on, the superlatives beginning to run embarrassingly thin amidst the eulogy, but this is merely testament to the band and the two hour show they produced; 22 songs each treated with the dedication of a band who clearly love their job.
England is the next highlight, the building crescendo making you question why the band were apparently denied a performance at Glastonbury this weekend, as revealed last night by Berninger. About Today follows and was the most changed live from the original recoding, as the normal acoustics grew into orgy of noise. Fake Empire ends the set, the purely musical finish a fitting tribute to the men behind Berninger.
When they return for the encore the audience are in raptures, with Heavenfaced and Humiliation both strong (especially the ending to Humiliation) but dominated by what follows. For Mr. November, the bands’ staple anthem, Berninger breaks free, swanning into the audience to be engulfed by a sweaty mass of euphoria, whilst the brothers play on, guitars aloft in the air, reverberating around the room. He repeats the move on Terrible Love to a similar response, a hurtling end to dramatics before the band reform centre stage. The instrument count suddenly drops as the acoustics are pulled out for the finish, a campfire like sing-along of High Violet closer, Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks. There’s something bewitchingly touching about a congregation crying out on repeat “I’ll explain everything to the geeks” with growing, unrivalled passion. The ambiguous lyrics so indecipherable that it’s hard to understand what you’re singing so hard about. But you don’t understand because you don’t need to. It’s whatever you want it to be. It’s fuel.