The National have been opening this tour with ‘Runaway’, a gentle yet flavourful start to the set. It isn’t a stand out track. It’s almost a lullaby. But like the band’s career, it’s considered, almost tactical; slow-burning and powerful. Promoting Alligator five years ago, the band played across town in Whelan’s. These five Ohio boys aren’t exactly slight but it wasn’t just their physicality that was too big for the stage. Then, and now, The National’s music centred around two massive forces: the fraught, tight and textured drumming of Bryan Devondorf and the baritone-sung anxieties of Matt Berninger – both equally epic. Back then, Alligator just about charted in one country (the UK at 165) – nowhere else. Two albums later High Violet has charted in sixteen countries, the Top Five in 10 of those, affording the band a touring horn section and an impressive visual backdrop at The Olympia tonight. Everything about them is bigger: the stage setting, the remarkable similes but most of all their poise.
Lyrically, The National’s music is bowed around paranoid and neurotic notions but their delivery and performance is nothing short of steadfast assurance. When still, Berninger anchors the band centre-stage. He is balanced either side by the Dessner twins, Bryce and Aaron, with complimenting jagged and humming guitars while Devondorf’s brother Scott strengthens the rhythm section with percussive bass lines.
‘Anyone’s Ghost’ builds brooding introspection while ‘Slow Show’ lures out gang-singing with “I want to hurry home to you…” However it is the piano-led ‘Squalor Victorious’ that cements the participation of the band and audience. Berninger, who initiates a clap-along, seems genuinely anxious. Fist biting, head slapping, shouting off mic into the ether – the man looks unhinged and the crowd love every bit of it, enticing more with screams of alliance as Berninger’s passionate performance channels elemental feelings shared by many.
‘Afraid of Everyone’ is a stunning paranoid celebration. Over arresting, taut guitar lines and palpitating rhythms, Matt bellows “I don’t have the drugs to sort it out” with strain and effort, as if exhausted by his own suspiciousness. He goes on to single out a group of girls sitting in the bar who may have the right idea.
When hundreds of people are singing “I still own money, to the money, to the money I owe” it’s hard not to reflect. Heralded by a distinct rolling drums ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ is an affecting song, doomed impressionist lyrics paint the story of real life woes packaged in an infectious almost cheery melody.
Blue lighting, lamenting horns and chiming guitars set the tone for ‘Conversation 16’, emotive and slightly apprehensive; a sentiment reflected with compelling image projections and carried through ‘Green Gloves’ and the stunning ‘England’, a memorable highlight culminating in a rousing descant. ‘All The Wine’, ‘Mr. November’, ‘Lit up’ and in particular ‘Abel’ are electrifying anthems, allowing Berninger to walk across the audience and descend into spiraling raucousness that he and his band incited. The crowd are fervent to say the least; The National have earned their fanatical reverence.
High Violet is a great album but not the best from The National. Some of their usual virulent intensity was slightly diluted, giving it broader appeal – a really smart move. You see now The National are the kind of band thousands of people want to see. They are the kind of band thousands of people should see. Their live show is a tremendous spectacle of raw sentiment and exposed emotions. Image-rich poetry played out over dark, gothic Americana. A potent concoction.
Photo from Last.FM
Video from belldavidalan