Saturday, November 16, 2013

In the Belly of the Beast

Being the best band in the world that most people have never heard of, The National are now probably too big to repeat their 2010 visit to the Brighton Dome, or last year’s curating of an All Tomorrow’s Parties at Camber Sands; so, it’s to North London’s Alexandra Palace on a school night to catch the Brooklyn band’s major cities-only visit to Britain.

With a capacity of 7,500, Ally Pally is huge. My only previous visit was sometime in the 90s when Black Grape and 808 State topped an endless bill on a night that I dimly remember as a scene from an Hieronymus Bosch painting. Outside on Wednesday night, it was like a scene from the Pilgrimage of Grace as the grey and black-clad hordes traipsed soberly up the hill from Wood Green tube. Inside the venue, it felt like an evacuation centre: huddles of overcoated refugees spread out as far as the eye could see, patrolling high vis stewards everywhere and the smell of frying meat wafting through the air.

Being near enough to the front, it was possible to imagine that this was an intimate gig if you ignored the massive screens, either side of the stage, beaming images to people at the back. There was always a danger that the band’s subtle and melancholic sound, and Matt Berninger’s sombre baritone in particular, would get lost in such a large venue, but his voice is gratefully high up in the mix and the brothers Dessner and Devendorf sound terrific when they kick off with Don’t Swallow the Cap and I Should Live in Salt from this year’s Trouble Will Find Me album. Over half of the 25 songs played come from this album and its predecessor, breakthrough album High Violet, but favourites such as Mistaken for Strangers, Squalor Victoria and Slow Show from 2007’s Boxer get an airing too. There is the surprising inclusion of Apartment Story with Cardinal Song from the Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers album of ten years ago, the gorgeous Pink Rabbits and a very pertinent England – “you must be somewhere in London” – before they finish with the sublime About Today, from the Cherry Tree EP, and the obligatory Fake Empire.

The five-song encore includes a new song, Lean, recorded for the soundtrack of the latest Hunger Games film, a raucous version of Mr. November - the only song played from my favourite album, Alligator – and a heart-warming acoustic sing-along finale of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks. After a two hour set, we are disgorged from the belly of the beast out into the chilly night air, to a spectacular view south across the capital, spirits lifted for the journey home.

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