The ascension of The National to rock music’s highest tier has been all the more noticeable of late. Last time around they took to the stage of London’s O2 Arena, no mean feat for a band without a chart topping record or particularly mainstream singles. Three years later and the Ohio-quintet, this time triumphant, UK No.1 in arm (for the excellent ‘Sleep Well Beast’) and with four nights sold out, this time at one of London’s more historic venues, the Hammersmith Apollo.
As a live spectacle The National have evolved in to a tour-de-force. Across their all-conquering two hour set the band seamlessly blended the intimacy of Berninger’s lyrics with the layered epic rock sound, as the Dessner brothers take it in turns to alternate between electric guitar and piano. Berninger himself cuts an intense yet crowd-pleasing shape as he prowls across stage, loosely steering the ship at the centre of it all whilst grappling with his microphone stand, stopping only for the more quieter songs and to just about audibly mumble his gratitude for everyone turning up.
The band kicked off with a smattering of tracks from the new record, a theme that saw them perform four from ‘Sleep Well Beast’ over the duration of the evening. Previously released singles ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’ with it’s biting guitar solo and the more electronically-tinged ‘Guilty Party’ in particular getting an excited reception, with the former setting off the first major sing along of the evening. It’s the sign of a band with a fervent set of fans when they can chop and change their setlist to such an extent over the the tour, with only a few songs a certainty that they would indeed play (even Mr November was cut on Tuesday night). Tonight however they chose to delve into their previous album, ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ with ‘I Should Live in Salt’ seeing Berninger lead the exalted cries of the song’s chorus with the excitable audience, followed swiftly by the anthemic ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’.
Plastic cups were sent flying for the raucous punk-edged ‘Turtleneck’, notably from Berninger himself who propelled numerous plastic receptacles into the crowd (many of which were half full) with smug glee as he stalked his way around the stage embodying the menace of the Stooges-like track which has already become a live favourite of the band. Subsequent track, ‘I Need My Girl’ quietened the tone and saw the theatre descend into silence as the crowd awed of Berninger’s weary yet immersive vocals.
The songs came thick and fast as the band treated the audience to a selection of their older songs including the brilliantly bittersweet ‘All the Wine’ from 2005’s ‘Alligator’, the folky ‘Slow Show’ and crowd-pleasing ‘Conversation 16’ before the all-conquering might of frenzy-inducing ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’. A permanent fixture in the band’s sets and one of the highlights of the evening as Berninger stopped to let the crowd sing the song’s chorus.
The one-two of ‘Fake Empire’ and ‘Mr November’ make up the finale of the main body of the set in particularly crowd-pleasing style. The emphatic piano-led balladry of ‘Fake Empire’ allows for Berninger to excellently showcase his nasally baritone before the entrance of the uplifting brass section. Whilst ‘Mr November’ sees the singer at his chaotic best as he dives into the crowd and performs the large majority of the song from the back of the venue, with only the panicked security trying to extend his mic cable and the sea of smartphones cameras held aloft giving any sign as to the whereabouts of Berninger.
The encore saw the band cover Cat Power’s ‘Maybe Not’, an interesting choice given the depth of their own back-catalogue but one that worked well and began the start of the end of the night’s proceedings with a more introspective moment before the joyous cheers that greeted the opening piano chords of fan-favourite ‘Pink Rabbits’. The rabble-rousing ‘Terrible Love’ gave Berninger further opportunity to be mobbed by the crowd, as both the crowd and band drank in the atmosphere of a magnificent night. A band at the top of their game and showing no sign of slowing down.
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Words: Rory Marcham
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