My editor thinks The National are bunch of whiney, earnest moaners. Which to be fair, is totally true. Although for me, and the rest of the attendees at their sold out Roundhouse show (which was preparing them for a summer of high profile festival slots and a UK tour), that’s sort of the point. While younger rising bands tend to use songs about love to express how happy they are and how great everything is (lies!) and a majority of stadium groups either talk nonsense (Muse) or about nothing at all (Kings of Leon, Mumford & Sons, snore…), The National have grown into a sincere heartbreak band for the masses. The tagline for the recent Stone Roses film was “Grown Men Will Cry”. This should really be shared with the Cincinnati five piece.
Underestimate their size at your peril. They’ve sold out Alexandra Palace and twice gone platinum, their sixth album ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ recently following the breakthrough ‘High Violet’. It’s a good old traditional rags to riches story a la Echo & The Bunnymen, a band The National have much in common with musically.
It definitely wasn’t a rock’n’roll show. One bloke was sat outside with his headphones in reading a hardback book as the audience began to enter the Chalk Farm venue-cum-art space. Most of the audience consisted of couples, and couples that looked like they were about to apply for their first mortgage at that. Kudos to the couple that gave me a beer in the queue in return for use of my keyring bottle opener. I’m thinking that could be a good little free-booze side project, if I’ve got a spare night and feel like standing in queues to shows I’m not actually attending.
Local Natives warmed the loved-up crowd with their harmony heavy, folk indebted simplicity in the same vein as the night’s headliners, along with picky bearded groups like Wild Beasts and Fleet Foxes. When their restrained anthemic qualities are released they really shine, but not every track manages to keep your full attention as they sometimes let the guitar melodies wander.
Nice and on time at nine (see, not rock’n’roll at all) the backstage camera turns on and images of the band getting pumped appear on the screen. Well, getting ready, anyway. They come on stage and launch right into recent album opener ‘I Should Live In Salt’. We made sure the tissues were ready to go.
Matt Berninger looks like a supply teacher gone mad, Breaking Bad’s Walter White if he’d decided to sing about his love life in a band rather than cook meth. Adopting a calm, reserved stage presence at first, as the set carries on he slowly becomes the passive aggressive anti-hero I was expecting. Half way through ‘Mr November’ I notice he’s no longer on stage. I turn to my left and he’s pushed his way through the entire Roundhouse audience. Around the corner and into the toilets he goes, and after a quick exit from the flooded loos he does another lap of the room and gets back onstage just in time for the song to end, all without a note out of tune. They must request the world’s longest mic leads on their rider.
Mr Berninger is really the focal point of the group. The rest of the band are in full black, rarely breaking character other than for some in between song introductions. The show started too quietly for the likes of ‘Sea of Love’ and ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ to pack the punch they offer on record, but luckily the soundman gets hold of the master volume before the second half of the set so that the band, plus horn section, are given a boost alongside the self loathing lyrics.
Drummer offstage, electric guitars swapped for acoustics, they close with ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’, Berninger barely approaching the mic while the crowd let loose their sing-a-long capacity for the first time all night (these couples don’t half like to keep quiet). It is stripped back brilliance, and showcases exactly why The National have become so adored; quite simply they write songs you can listen to, and read into, and relate to. Comparing them to The Stone Roses at points, especially when the guitars and colour screens started going into psych mode, doesn’t seem that far fetched when they’re onstage.
If this is them warming up, the rest of their 2013 shows are set to be blinders. Just prepare to get moany, take a girlfriend, and take some tissues.
By Nicholas Burman