Two years ago the National played a great show to an appreciative audience at King Tut’s. At the time they were a pretty popular cult band. The intervening period has seen the release of a fourth album and a gradual widening of their audience. They don’t get magazine covers, they don’t get lauded as flavour of the month, and yet here they were at the ABC in front of a crowd I could only describe as totally besotted. It’s all pretty strange, and the band seemed as bemused as anyone. When he wasn’t singing, Matt Berninger spent most of the time nervously pacing up and down, playing with his hair and grinning like a shy small boy who’s not used to the attention, but beginning to like it.
They may be embarrassed by the adulation, but tonight they earned it. It was quite simply the best rock show I’ve seen in years. On record the Boxer material is slightly low key, but live it was transformed into something intense and gripping. Aaron Dessner may look like Ben Stiller’s younger brother, but he is one of the most exciting guitarists of his generation. His brother Bryce offers steely support, and the Devendorf brothers – Scott and Bryan – provide a locked tight rhythm section. Unofficial sixth member Padma Newsome (who plays in Clogs with Aaron Dessner) isn’t afraid to hog the limelight with some breathtaking violin. The group come across as a bunch who are simply thrilled to be able to play their songs for people. There is no artifice or attitude – this is music made for all the right reasons.
The National’s biggest strength, though, is their songs. They played for over an hour and not one felt misplaced. All were in the set on merit. It was one of those rare shows where the quality never flagged. I could reel off a dozen highlights – “Murder Me Rachael”, “Abel”, Ada”, “Fake Empire”, “Start A War” etc etc. I guess the best had to be “Mr November”. If they could bottle it as Dr Berninger’s Liquid Catharsis they would be billionaires. Everybody in the place was bellowing the words like some collective primal scream therapy. I admit to being increasingly curmudgeonly about crowds these days. Tonight’s was a real mix of ages and types, but they all seemed to be there to listen, to sing, to dance – there was a real carnival atmosphere which just added to the evening’s magic.
Support act St Vincent (aka Annie Clark) was a new name to me. Armed with just a guitar, a synth-drum, a sampler and a battery of effects pedals she made an impressive racket. At times sounding like Mary Margaret O’Hara, and at others the Spaceman 3 (I kid you not), she was wildly eclectic but also very inventive – happy to push her songs out into all sorts of new shapes. I liked her a lot.