Hyperbole aside, you could argue that rock n’ roll is a type of modern religion to fans. It’s a lifestyle choice, it provides a set of values by which we relate to other and live our lives by, and provides a community that while interacting with the rest of the world, also allows deep bonds to be formed through friendships and relationships. You could also argue that going to gigs is a form of worship for fans – not so much of false idols, but for a communal experience that can at times transport you out of reality. On occasion, gigs can almost be religious experiences – The National came pretty close tonight.
The Middle East, a band that had effectively broken up until their glorious harmonies and delicate melodies were picked up on by tastemakers across the globe are in fine form, the haunting choral harmonies of ‘Blood’ and ‘The Darkest Side’ echoing around the lofty ceilings and faded glory of The Palais Theate.
The National are a band that persevered in day jobs and through a number of increasingly acclaimed albums before really breaking through with the ragged glory of High Violet in 2010, an album that had critics reaching for superlatives and punters sighing in wonder and recognition as Matt Berninger and the band chronicled the malaise of approaching middle age. Remorse, failed relationships, regrets and contemplating the passage of time, while probably having a few more alcoholic drinks than is healthy is the album’s stock in trade and has seen the band’s star soar in the world.
It appears that this rise in popularity has worn off on the band, who are responding with spellbinding performances. Opening with ‘Runaway’ off High Violet, the massive buzz in the audience is palpable, before ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ sets off a wave of adulation in the crowd. This is repaid by an extraordinary run in to the crowd by Berninger – leaping over the backs of chairs as fans whip out their iPhones to take pictures as he stood propped up by the crowd on the back of a chair in the middle of the theatre, never missing a beat. The last time this scribe saw something so exciting in this venue, Julian Casablancas of The Strokes ran out in to the crowd for a cover of The Clash’s ‘Clampdown’ while support band Kings of Leon looked on from side of stage. Berninger exhorts the crowd to join in the chorus, before returning to the stage and thanking venue management, saying he ‘thought it’d be okay so long as I didn’t give any 14 year olds booze. Look, she looked at least 15’ he quips.
Artists have to have supreme confidence in their abilities and to pull such moves off – it’s not arrogance, just knowing when to pull it off and execute it with grace, one of the hallmarks of a great band.
‘Afraid of Everyone’ is dedicated to the victims of the recent shooting in Tucson, Arizona the lyrics now startlingly prescient, the crowd remaining on their feet , aware that they’re witnessing something truly amazing. Indeed the bulk of the set is derived from High Violet, but when you’ve made an album that fantastic you do as you please. ‘Lemonworld’ sees the band’s accompanying brass section put to amazing live effect, while ‘Available’ off 2003’s Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers is described by Berninger as ‘the most mean spirited song i’ve ever written’, recalling the band’s early sound with much more ringing guitar tones, reminiscent of The Cult and Echo & The Bunnymen. ‘Sorrow’ sees the stage bathed in a beautiful blue light, the crescendo of horns and keyboard washes illuminating the yearning refrain of ‘I don’t wanna get over you’.
Lest the crowd think that The National are all brooding and middle aged, they whip out ‘Abel’ off 2005’s Alligator, Berninger’s howl of the refrain ‘My mind’s not right, my mind’s not right, my mind’s not right’ shifts from a recorded version which had the passion of Bruce Springsteen to an epic live number recalling Nirvana at their most primal, the front man smashing his microphone into the stage at the song’s conclusion. He then gives his bottle of wine to a woman in the front row, joking ‘you look at least 17’. ‘England’ is simultaneously epic and tender – the climax seeing the stage pounded by lights.
Berninger offers another bottle of wine to a fan in the front row as they return for an encore while ‘I’m Afraid of Everyone’ sees the crowd gurning in collective ecstasy – they could all be off their chops on pills at a nightclub as far as an outsider could tell. ‘Terrible Love’ invokes a feeling of being in a religious revival centre – the crowd appear to almost be in worship. ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ sees the inevitable end of the set, as the band take to the very lip of the stage for an impassioned acoustic delivery of their ode to a failed relationship, the culmination of a show that demonstrates that possibly only the Arcade Fire can match the band in delivering a show of such intensity. Yes, they really are that good.