When I wrote about The National the first time, they were touring Boxer and I photographed them at a gig in a half full Shepherds Bush Empire.
It sounds a different age but it was just one album and no more then three years ago.
Since then the rise of the Brooklyn band has been unstoppable and unstopped.
If I built a comparison to sadcore and a cult band as Sophia today The National gather comparisons to bands as big as U2.
About a year and half ago I saw them again at a one off gig at the sumptuous Royal Festival Hall. It was before High Violet, this year album and album of this year, was released but they were already testing it live. I can remember Runaway and Bloodbuzz Ohio played there.
At that show I realized The National reached such a stunning form that nothing would stop them anymore. Dicto.
High Violet, together with Beach House Teen Dream, are the album of 2010 present in any best album of the year list.
The National impersonate perfectly the concept of a band of our times.
The fall of music industry, the rise of several independent labels mirroring the gzillions of music related websites blossoming everyday, makes impossible for a band to emerge and become huge in the way it was when 2 TV channels and 5 magazines decided who was good and who was to be forgotten.
Now that every single blog tend to talk to its own niche of aficionados, there is a slice of the cake for everyone, but with so many people sitting at the table the portion has become very small.
The National, consciously or unconsciously, understood that to succeed in such a scenario need to target different “niches”.
They started writing “dirty songs for sad lovers” a title of an album which resounds as a manifesto of indieness in a sentence.
But they also wrote a sumptuous generational hymns as Fake Empire. I don’t think it is by coincidence that the off beat drumming arriving after the first verses reminds me of the anthem of the 80s, U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday.
Those times rock’n’roll was still riding politics and rebellion, the Clash memories were awake, convinced to change the world. Nowadays rock’n’roll presumption to change the world declined.
John Grant put it clearly in the opening verse of his Queen of Denmark “I wanted to change the world, But I could not even change my underwear”.
The National echoed it in a more hermetic, yet similar way…
“Stay out super late tonight
picking apples, making pies
put a little something in our lemonade and take it with us
we’re half-awake in a fake empire”
Fake Empire closed this show that closed the third of three sold out dates at the Brixton Academy. This sums up to 15.000 people who went to listen to them, 10 times more of that Shepherds Bush Empire night. Also worth considering that Arcade Fire and Frightened Rabbit, two bands that share National audience, were playing London on the same evening.
It is a sign the economic crisis doesn’t seem to affect live music, but also a sign that music fans are spread as Nutella over several styles, venues, bands to support my opening “theory”. The amount of music nowadays is not less but much more than it used to be. It is just everywhere and you need to know where to search for what you like.
Qualitatively it is not worse either, despite legions of detractors keep missing the “good old days” every half hour, the music scene has never been so plenty of good music.
In the 90 minutes before the National anticipated Wikileaks confessing the empire we live is fake, the show spreads along the most recent songwriting, ignoring the indie-snob-ness rule number 2: the best material is the earlest. I don’t believe The National ever recorded a weak album so I am not complaining to hear a set which is mainly made of songs from High Violet (album of the year 2010 for liveon35mm reader poll, tlobf and many more) and Boxer (album of 2007 for the entire world).
They wrote so many good songs that any set-list will put me down for something missing, if want to see the glass half-empty, but it is very satisfying because even half of this drink is wonderful.
I noticed, and browsed several setlist in the years, that The National rarely if ever play songs from the first two albums. Even the landmark American Mary who names their website is forgotten. I may be wrong, I hope I am, but excluding the early tunes looks more a label related issue that an artistic choice.
The show opens with Mistaken For Strangers from Boxer and they play my favourite High Violet songs, Anyone’s Ghost in second place while I am still photographing. Annoying, but just for me.
There’s no Secret Meeting, my favourite tracks they played the night before, but they pick up a rarity from Alligator, Lit Up, which hasn’t been played often.
The rest is all there, songs are rich, band line-up is enriched with trumpets, trombone, keys and the 2 couple of brothers still support Matt Berninger voice brilliantly.
Everything is perfect, you can’t find a weakness in the National live shows. It is easier to find the strength in the metronomic drumming of Bryan Devendorf and the two guitars of Dessner bros.
Those guitars build up a crescendo that reaches noise at the end of each song increasing the tension until it is released into the next tune. Every time it happens people excitement reaches a climax.
The three closing song Green Gloves, England and Fake Empire are a powerful triplet that few bands can claim.
The encore treats the audience with the rockier Mr November and the wonderful Terrible Love that live preserves that demo feel it has on the album. But it is when Matt Berninger asks the audience to stay silent, leaves the mic and starts singing Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks with no amplification and just two acoustic guitars that shivers go down the spine of every single person present.
If the first of London dates saw a Sufjian Stevens cameo, playing two songs with them, this was a pure National concert and, at present, they need no one help to be considered one of the greatest bands of our time.
Live on 35mm, despite less on 35mm because of several reasons one day I will talk about, will live on in 2011 and it will start with the almighty return of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Expect a very special piece on their 3 different gigs at their curated Nightmare before Christmas ATP.
Then you’ll find another poll on the right column where to vote and choose which bands you want next on these shores of the many that delighted Butlins crowd. A hot January ahead, to warm you up from this freezing winter.